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THE SEVENTEENTH 
CENTURY BACKGROUND 



THE 

SEVENTEENTH CENTURY 

BACKGROUND 

STUDIES IN THE THOUGHT OF THE AGE 

IN RELATION TO POETRY 

AND RELIGION 

By 
Basil Willey 



NEW YORK 

COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY PRESS 



PUBLISHED IN GREAT BRITAIN BY 

Chatto & Windus Ltd. 



Reprinted ig6y 




PRINTED IN GREAT BRITAIN 



CONTENTS 

Foreword ^ a Z e V1 * 

Chapter I THE REJECTION OF SCHOLASTICISM 

i. ' Truth ' and ' Explanation ' in the Seventeenth 

Century I 

2. Some Protests 7 

3. St Thomas Aquinas and Galileo 12 

II BACON AND THE REHABILITATION OF 
NATURE 

1. Twofold Truth 24 

2. ' Forbidden ' Knowledge 31 

III SIR THOMAS BROWNE 

1. The ' Metaphysical ' 41 

2. The Baconian 48 

IV ON SCRIPTURAL INTERPRETATION 

1. Browne 57 

2. The Allegorists 61 

3. Browne (concluded) 67 

4. Milton 69 

V THE PHILOSOPHICAL QUEST FOR TRUTH 
—DESCARTES 

1. Descartes's ' Method ' and Meditations 76 

2. Poetry and the Cartesian Spirit 86 

VI THE PHILOSOPHICAL QUEST FOR TRUTH 
— HOBBES 

1. 'Body' 93 

2. The Soul 100 

3. The Will 106 

4. The Christian Commonwealth 1 1 1 

VII RATIONAL THEOLOGY 119 

Lord Herbert of Cherbury 121 



VI THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

VIII RATIONAL THEOLOGY— THE CAMBRIDGE 
PLATONISTS 

i. The Candle of the Lord Page 133 

2. John Smith's Discourses 138 

3. The Metaphysical Teaching of the Platonists 

(i) Ralph Cudworth 154 

(ii) Henry More 160 

IX JOSEPH GLANVILL 170 

1. The Canity of Dogmatizing 174 

2. Sadducismus Triumphatus 194 

X THE HEROIC POEM IN A SCIENTIFIC AGE 

1. The Climate of Opinion 205 

(i) Thomas Sprat's History of the Royal Society 206 
(ii) Hobbes and Dryden on Fancy and 

Judgment 216 

2. Milton 219 

(i) The Heroic Poem 220 

(ii) Milton's Choice of Subject 224 

(iii) Milton and the Fall of Man 240 

(iv) The Tree of Knowledge in Paradise Lost 256 

XI JOHN LOCKE 

1. General 264 

2. Locke's Theory of Knowledge 273 

A. Our Own Existence 277 

B. The Existence of God 

(i) Evidence 278 

(ii) Revelation and Reason 281 

C. The Existence of Other Things 287 
Locke and Poetry 290 

XII POSTSCRIPT : ON WORDSWORTH AND THE 

LOCKE TRADITION 296 

INDEX 310 



FOREWORD 

THE following pages are the outcome of lectures 
on seventeenth century life and thought given in 
the English School at Cambridge during recent 
years. The wider purpose of the book is to furnish readers 
of seventeenth century literature with a sketch of the in- 
tellectual background of the period. But I have hoped to 
give some unity to so vast a subject by keeping steadily in 
view a more particular aim, that, namely, of noting how 
poetry, and also religion, were affected by the con- 
temporary ' climates of opinion'. It is generally agreed 
that in the seventeenth century a great effort was being 
made, by representative thinkers, to see things ' as in 
themselves they really are ', and the ideas of Truth and 
Fiction which were then evolved seem to have exerted 
a decisive influence upon the poetic and religious beliefs 
of succeeding times. It has been my aim to study this 
influence, and to enquire what occurred when traditional 
beliefs, and especially theological and poetic beliefs, 
were exposed to the ' touch of cold philosophy \ 

I hope I need offer no apology for thus classifying 
poetic and religious beliefs together. Both, at any rate, 
seem to have been similarly affected by the ' philosophic ' 
spirit, and those who are interested in the fate of either 
can hardly avoid feeling some concern for that of the 
other. What I do wish to make clear, however, is that 
this book makes no pretence to be a contribution either 
to the ' moral sciences ' or to pure literary criticism. 
When speaking of philosophical matters I have supposed 
myself to be addressing, not professional philosophers, 
but students of literature, and not professed students 
merely, but all to whom poetry, and religion, and their 

vil 



Vlll THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

relation to the business of living, are matters of im- 
portance. And as my excuse for trespassing so out- 
rageously beyond the supposed limits of 4 literary ' 
criticism I would offer the following recent remark of 
Mr T. S. Eliot's, from which I have derived con- 
siderable consolation : 

' In attempting to win a full understanding of the poetry 
of a period you are led to the consideration of subjects which 
at first sight appear to have little bearing upon poetry.' * 

My acknowledgments are due to the Syndics of the 
Cambridge University Press for permission to quote 
from Professor Whitehead's Science and the Modern 
World, to Messrs. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co. 
for allowing me to reproduce a passage from Professor 
Burtt's Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science, and to 
Messrs. Sheed and Ward for permission to quote from 
M. Maritain's St Thomas Aquinas and Mr Christopher 
Dawson's Christianity and the New Age. 

The Postscript chapter on ' Wordsworth and the 
Locke Tradition ' contains the greater part of an essay 
entitled Wordsworth's Beliefs, which has appeared in 
The Criterion. I am indebted to the Editor of that Review 
for kindly allowing me to make use of this material. 

B. W. 

Cambridge, November 1933. 

1 The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, p. 76. (Faber Sc Faber, 1933.) 



THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY 
BACKGROUND 



CHAPTER I 



The Rejection of Scholasticism 



1 " I perceive ", said the Countess, " Philosophy is now become 
very Mechanical.'''' " So mechanical ", said I, " that 1 fear we 
shall quickly be a sham 'd of it ; they will have the World to be in 
great j what a watch is in little ; which is very regular, & 
depends only upon the just disposing of the several parts of the 
movement. But pray tell me, Madam, had you not formerly 
a more sublime Idea of the Universe ? " ' [Fontenelle, Plurality 
of Worlds, 1686.] 

TO give a ' philosophical ' account of matters which 
had formerly been explained ' unscientifically ', 
'popularly ', or 'figuratively' — this, it would prob- 
ably be agreed, has been the main intellectual concern of 
the last three hundred years. In a sense, no doubt, the 
separation of the ' true ' from the ' false ', the ' real ' from 
the ' illusory ', has been the task of thought at all times. 
But this winnowing process seems to have been carried on 
much more actively and consciously at certain times than 
at others. For us in the West two such periods are of 
especial importance, the period of Greek philosophy and 
the centuries following the Renaissance. It was in the 
seventeenth century that modern European thought seems 
first to have assumed, once more, that its appointed task 
was La Recherche de la Verite, the discovery and declara- 
tion, according to its lights, of the True Nature of Things. 
It is in that century that we meet once again the exhilara- 
tion which inspired Lucretius in his address to Epicurus 



2 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

— the sense of emancipation from inadequate notions, of 
new contact with reality. It was then, too, that the con- 
cepts of 'truth', 'reality', 'explanation ' and the rest were 
being formed, which have moulded all subsequent thinking. 
There is some reason, then, for supposing that it may be 
worthwhile to watch these concepts in process of formation. 

First it may be well to enquire, not with Pilate — 
'What is Truth?' but what was felt to be 'truth' and 
'explanation' under seventeenth century conditions. As 
T. E. Hulme and others have pointed out, it is almost 
insuperably difficult to become critically conscious of one's 
own habitual assumptions; 'doctrines felt as facts' can 
only be seen to be doctrines, and not facts, after great 
efforts of thought, and usually only with the aid of a first- 
rate metaphysician. It is, however, less difficult to detect 
the assumptions of an age distant from our own, espe- 
cially when these have been subject to criticism. At this 
distance of time it should be possible, I think, to state 
fairly accurately what the seventeenth century felt as 
'true', and what satisfied it as 'explanation'. In reading 
seventeenth century writers one feels that it was as 'ex- 
planation' that they chiefly valued the 'new philosophy', 
and it is for this reason that I wish first to enquire, briefly, 
what is 'explanation'? 

Dictionary definitions will not help us much here. 'To 
explain', we learn, means to 'make clear', to 'render in- 
telligible '. But wherein consists the clarity, the intelli- 
gibility? The clarity of an explanation seems to depend 
upon the degree of satisfaction that it affords. An 
explanation 'explains' best when it meets some need of 
our nature, some deep-seated demand for assurance. 
'Explanation' may perhaps be roughly defined as a re- 
statement of something — event, theory, doctrine, etc. — 
in terms of the current interests and assumptions. It 



THE REJECTION OF SCHOLASTICISM 3 

satisfies, as explanation, because it appeals to that par- 
ticular set of assumptions, as superseding those of a past 
age or of a former state of mind. Thus it is necessary, if 
an explanation is to seem satisfactory, that its terms should 
seem ultimate, incapable of further analysis. Directly we 
allow ourselves to ask ' What, after all, does this explana- 
tion amount to? ' we have really demanded an explanation 
of the explanation, that is to say, we have seen that the 
terms of the first explanation are not ultimate, but can be 
analysed into other terms — which perhaps for the moment 
do seem to us to be ultimate. Thus, for example, we may 
choose to accept a psychological explanation of a meta- 
physical proposition, or we may prefer a metaphysical 
explanation of a psychological proposition. All depends 
upon our presuppositions, which in turn depend upon 
our training, whereby we have come to regard (or to feel) 
one set of terms as ultimate, the other not. An explana- 
tion commands our assent with immediate authority, when 
it presupposes the 'reality', the 'truth', of what seems to 
us most real, most true. One cannot, therefore, define 
'explanation' absolutely; one can only say that it is a 
statement which satisfies the demands of a particular time 
or place. 

A general demand for restatement or explanation 
seems to have arisen from time to time, perhaps never 
more vehemently than in the period we are considering. 
Such a demand presumably indicates a disharmony 
between traditional explanations and current needs. It 
does not necessarily imply the 'falsehood' of the older 
statement; it may merely mean that men now wish to 
live and to act according to a different formula. This is 
especially evident in our period whenever a 'scientific' 
explanation replaces a theological one. For example, the 
spots on the moon's surface might be due, theologically, 
to the fact that it was God's will they should be there; 



4 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

scientifically they might be 'explained' as the craters of 
extinct volcanoes. The newer explanation may be said, 
not so much to contain 'more' truth than the older, as to 
supply the kind of truth which was now demanded. An 
event was 'explained' — and this, of course, may be said 
as much of our own time as of the seventeenth century — 
when its history had been traced and described. A 
comet, for example, or an eclipse, was explained when 
instead of being a disastrous omen which 'with fear of 
change perplexes monarchs' it could be shown to be the 
'necessary' result of a demonstrable chain of causes. No 
one, it need hardly be said, wishes to deny that this ex- 
planation had and still has a more 'satisfying' quality 
than the one it superseded. But why was it more satis- 
fying? It was more satisfying, we may suppose, because 
now, instead of the kind of 'truth' which is consistent 
with authoritative teaching, men began to desire the kind 
which would enable them to measure, to weigh and to 
control the things around them; they desired, in Bacon's 
words, 'to extend more widely the limits of the power and 
greatness of man \ 1 Interest was now directed to the how, 
the manner of causation, not its why, its final cause. For 
a scientific type of explanation to be satisfying, for it to 
convince us with a sense of its necessary truth, we must be 
in the condition of needing and desiring that type of 
explanation and no other. 

The seventeenth century was the first of the modern 
centuries which, on the whole, have increasingly fulfilled 
these conditions. We have said that an explanation is 
acceptable when it satisfies certain needs and demands. 
What demands were met by the scientific movement in 
our period? To answer this question we may enquire a 
little into the general effects of explanation upon the minds 
of those who are being enlightened. Considered as a 

1 Quoted by Dampier-Whetham, Hist, of Science, p. 137. 



THE REJECTION OF SCHOLASTICISM $ 

psychological event, an explanation may be described as a 
change in the quality of our response towards an object or 
an idea. This change is typically a release from some sort 
of tension, as in the ordinary cases of 'clearing-up' any 
'mystery'. An explanation invites and — if it is in accord- 
ance with our felt or unfelt needs — produces a new attitude 
towards its subject-matter. Where we had formerly felt 
fear, pain, curiosity, dissatisfaction, anxiety or reverence, 
we now experience relief, and regard the object with easy 
familiarity and perhaps contempt. An explained thing, 
except for very resolute thinkers, is almost inevitably 'ex- 
plained away'. Speaking generally, it may be said that 
the demand for explanation is due to the desire to be rid 
of mystery. Such a demand will be most insistent when 
the current mysteries have become unusually irksome, as 
seems to have been the case in the time of Epicurus, and 
again at the Renaissance. At those turning-points men 
wanted 'scientific' explanations because they no longer 
wished to feel as they had been taught to feel about the 
nature of things. To be rid of fear — fear of the unknown, 
fear of the gods, fear of the stars or of the devil — to be 
released from the necessity of reverencing what was not 
to be understood, these were amongst the most urgent 
demands of the modern as of the ancient world; and it 
was because it satisfied these demands that scientific 
explanation was received as the revelation of truth. Not 
immediately received by everybody, we should remind 
ourselves. There are always those like Donne for whom 
new philosophy 'puts all in doubt', for whom, in fact, new 
explanation explains nothing, but merely causes distress 
and confusion ; and those, like the Fathers of the Inquisi- 
tion, for whom new philosophy is simply old error. But 
there is a deepening chorus of approval as the century 
wears on, and after the Restoration the unanimity is 
wonderful. 



6 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

More was demanded than mere release from traditional 
hauntings. Men demanded also to feel at home in this 
brave new world which Columbus and Copernicus and 
Galileo had opened up to them, and to recognise it as 
'controlled, sustained and agitated', by laws in some way 
akin to those of human reason. To be no longer at the 
mercy of nature, no longer to be encompassed by arbi- 
trary mystery — these benefits were to be accompanied by 
the great new gift of power, power to control natural 
forces and to turn them, in Bacon's phrases, to the 'occa- 
sions and uses of life', and 'the relief of man's estate'. All 
this the new thought promised and indeed performed ; no 
wonder, then, that the types of explanation which it offered 
seemed the only 'true' ones. Were these promises the 
enticements of Mephistopheles to Faust? and has the 
Adversary, at any time since then, actually reappeared and 
demanded payment of his bond? This disturbing possi- 
bility is one which, at any rate, we shall not do ill to bear 
in mind as we pursue our enquiries. 

We began, it will be remembered, by enquiring what 
was felt to be most true, most real, most explanatory,under 
seventeenth century conditions. Let us guard against any 
implied over-simplification ; no one thing answered to 
that description, then or at any time. Different kinds of 
truth were acknowledged (as we shall see later in more 
detail), for instance truths of faith and truths of reason ; 
different orders of reality were recognised, and different 
kinds of explanation seen to be relevant in varying con- 
texts. Nevertheless it may be said that if there was then 
any outstanding intellectual revolution in process of enact- 
ment, it was a general transference of interest from meta- 
physics to physics, from the contemplation of Being to 
the observation of Becoming. In Bacon's classification of 
the Sciences, final causes and Form are consigned to 
Metaphysics, while Physics deals with efficient causes and 



THE REJECTION OF SCHOLASTICISM J 

Matter. But although Metaphysics is thus given its status 
by the buccinator novi temporis, the main significance of the 
great instauration was to lie in the enormous extension of 
the field of physical or ' natural ' causation, the field of 
1 efficient causes and matter '. In the mighty ' exantlation 
of truth ' 1 — of which Sir Thomas Browne lamented that 
he should not see the end, or more, indeed, than ' that 
obscured Virgin half out of the pit ' — no event counted 
for more than the realisation that almost all the phenomena 
of the physical world could be ' explained ' by the laws of 
motion, as movements of particles of matter in space and 
time. As Glanvill says, the Aristotelian philosophy had 
prevailed, until the present age disinterred ' the more 
excellent Hypotheses of Democritus and Epicurus '. 2 
Although not all mysteries, by any means, had yet been 
reduced to mechanics, what is important for us is that now 
mechanico-materialistic explanations began to be 'felt as 
facts', felt, that is, as affording that picture of reality, of 
things-in-themselves, which alone would satisfy contem- 
porary demands. It was only when you were interpreting 
any phenomenon — a colour, a movement, a condition, an 
attraction — in terms of the motion of atoms, their im- 
pingement on each other, their cohesion, collision or 
eddying, that you were giving an account of how things 
actually and really happened. The mechanical explana- 
tion was the 'philosophical' explanation; all others were, 
on the one hand, vulgar, superstitious, and superficial; or, 
on the other hand, they were 'Aristotelian' or 'scholastic*. 



In general it may be said that the reason why schol- 
asticism was held to be an obstacle to truth was because 

1 ' Wherein, against the tenacity of prescription and prejudice, this century 
now prevaileth.' Christian Morals, ii. sect. 5. 

2 Canity of Dogmatizing, 1661, p. 146. 



8 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

it seemed to discourage further enquiry along experi- 
mental lines. All explanations of the scholastic type 
seemed to the new school to be merely statements of 
ignorance masquerading in philosophic dress, equivalent, 
in fact, to asserting that things are such-and-such because 
they are. Criticisms of scholasticism abound in our 
period, for instance in the writings of Bacon, Descartes, 
Hobbes, Browne, Milton, Glanvill, Boyle and many 
others. Most of these writers are full of the sense of 
having triumphed over what had hitherto seemed the 
ultimate limitations of human knowledge, the sense of 
having passed the pillars of Hercules on the intellectual 
voyage. And until quite recently most historians have 
written of them from their own standpoint, representing 
the intellectual history of the period as a process whereby 
error, fable and superstition were finally vanquished by 
truth and reason. There have, however — especially of 
late — been voices raised in protest against the uncritical 
acceptance of the 'scientific' assumptions; and it should 
therefore be not only possible, but natural, for us to 
approach the seventeenth century with greater detach- 
ment. The admonitions have come to us from widely 
different quarters. We have the Catholics and Neo- 
Thomists, a group including several writers of the greatest 
ability, who have extolled the synthesis of St Thomas 
Aquinas, and expounded it with convincing brilliance. 
Here, for instance, is M. Maritain's version of what really 
took place at the Renaissance (the italics are mine) : 

' In the sixteenth century, and more particularly in the age of 
Descartes, the interior hierarchies of the virtue of reason were 
shattered. Philosophy abandoned theology to assert its own 
claim to be considered the supreme science, and, the mathematical 
science of the sensible world and its phenomena taking precedence at 
the same time over metaphysics, the human mind began to profess 
independence of God and Being. Independence of God : that is 
to say, of the supreme Object of all intelligence, Whom it 



THE REJECTION OF SCHOLASTICISM 9 

accepted only half-heartedly until it finally rejected the intimate 
knowledge of Him supernaturally procured by grace and revela- 
tion. Independence of being : that is to say, of the connatural 
object of the mind as such, against which it ceased to measure 
itself humbly, until it finally undertook to deduce it entirely from 
the seeds of geometrical clarity which it conceived to be innate 
in itself.' l 

Just before the war T. E. Hulme proclaimed, in lan- 
guage of remarkable trenchancy, the death of the humanist 
and scientific traditions springing from the Renaissance, 
and demanded what was in effect a return to the ideology 
of scholasticism. 'As if, he wrote in 19 13, 'it were not 
the business of every 7 honest man at the present moment 
to clean the world of these sloppy dregs of the Renais- 
sance ! ' 2 M. Julien Benda prefixes his Trahison des Clercs 
with a motto from Renouvier: 'Le monde souffre du 
manque de foi en une verite transcendante.' Lastly, 
though examples could be indefinitely multiplied, I will 
quote from a brilliant essay by a younger representative of 
the Catholic school, Mr Christopher Dawson : 

'The Western mind has turned away from the contemplation 
of the absolute and eternal to the knowledge of the particular and 
the contingent. It has made man the measure of all things and 
has sought to emancipate human life from its dependence on the 
supernatural. Instead of the whole intellectual and social 
order being subordinated to spiritual principles, every activity has 
declared its independence, and we see politics, economics, science 
and art organising themselves as autonomous kingdoms which 
owe no allegiance to any higher power.' 3 

Mr Dawson, and those who think with him, trace the 
present chaos in Western civilisation to this loss of God- 
consciousness, the Renaissance becoming, in their view, 
a veritable second Fall of Man. Sentiments of this kind, 

1 Maritain, St Thomas Aquinas, Eng\ trans., p. 91. 

2 From an article on Epstein, in The Neiv Age, Dec. 25, 1913. 

3 Christianity and The Neiv Age, p. 66, in Essays in Order, 193 1. 



IO THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

it is worth remembering, can now be uttered in all sober- 
ness and with compelling force, whereas at almost any- 
time during the past three hundred years they would have 
seemed a mad flouting of the dominant optimism and 
progress-worship. No one listened when Blake, about a 
hundred and thirty years ago, described Bacon's Essays 
as 'Good advice for Satan's Kingdom', and announced 
that 'Bacon's philosophy has Ruin'd England'. 

But it is not only from this camp that the attacks have 
been launched. The most recent advances in science 
itself, as is well known, have had at least as unsettling an 
effect upon the -traditional scientific 'philosophy', indeed 
they have perhaps contributed vitally to the recent revival 
of respect for scholastic ways of thought. The situation, 
as far as a layman can understand it, seems to be not that 
science has proved in any sense 'wrong' in its results, as 
that it has, through some of its leading contemporary 
writers, acknowledged its own account of reality to be far 
from complete. Mechanistic determinism, the essential 
assumption of science, has not been 'exploded', as we are 
sometimes informed by persons interested in its over- 
throw; it has merely been shown to be a method and not 
a philosophy, a technique of investigation and not an 
account of Being. The statements of science, now seen to 
be abstractions, are generally recognised to be incapable 
of satisfying all the complex needs of the human spirit, 
though they are of unimpaired serviceableness within 
their own field of application. For some time we have 
been encountering, and we have now learned to expect, a 
changed tone from writers who treat of the origins of 
modern scientific thought. Though there is no diminu- 
tion in the volume of praise which is bestowed on the 
giants of the seventeenth century — 'the century of 
genius' — there is no longer the old tone of expansive 
optimism, the glad sense of final escape from error. 



THE REJECTION OF SCHOLASTICISM I I 

Though no one denies the extent of our gains, it is more 
often of our losses that we are now reminded. Nature, 
according to the mechanical philosophy, writes Professor 
Whitehead, 

'is a dull affair, soundless, scentless, colourless; merely the hurry- 
ing of material, endlessly, meaninglessly. However you disguise 
it, this is the practical outcome of the characteristic scientific 
philosophy which closed the seventeenth century. No alterna- 
tive system of organising the pursuit of scientific truth has been 
suggested. It is not only reigning, but it is without a rival. And 
yet — it is quite unbelievable. This conception of the universe 
is surely framed in terms of high abstractions, and the paradox 
only arises because we have mistaken our abstractions for con- 
crete realities. . . . The seventeenth century had finally pro- 
duced a scheme of scientific thought framed by mathematicians, 
for the use of mathematicians. The great characteristic of the 
mathematical mind is its capacity for dealing with abstractions; 
and for eliciting from them clear-cut demonstrative trains of 
reasoning, entirely satisfactory so long as it is those abstractions 
which you want to think about. The enormous success of the 
scientific abstractions, yielding on the one hand matter with its 
simple location in space and time, on the other hand mind, per- 
ceiving, suffering, reasoning but not interfering, has foisted on 
to philosophy the task of accepting them as the most concrete 
rendering of fact. Thereby, modern philosophy has been 
ruined.' x 

One more quotation, from a historian of scientific thought, 
should suffice to illustrate the prevailing attitude. Pro- 
fessor E. A. Burtt, writing of the emotional implications 
of seventeenth century science, says : 

' It was of the greatest consequence for succeeding thought 
that now the great Newton's authority was squarely behind that 
view of the cosmos which saw in man a puny, irrelevant spec- 
tator (so far as a being wholly imprisoned in a dark room can be 
called such) of the vast mathematical system whose regular 
motions according to mechanical principles constituted the world 

1 Science and the Modern World, ch. iii. 



12 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

of nature. . . . The world that people had thought themselves 
living in — a world rich with colour and sound . . . speaking 
everywhere of purposive harmony and creative ideals — was 
crowded now into minute corners in the brains of scattered 
organic beings. The really important world outside was a world, 
hard, cold, colourless, silent and dead — a world of quantity, a 
world of mathematically computable motions in mechanical 
regularity. The world of qualities as immediately perceived by 
man became just a curious and quite minor effect of that infinite 
machine, beyond. In Newton, the Cartesian metaphysics, am- 
biguously interpreted and stripped of its distinctive claim for 
serious philosophical consideration, finally overthrew Aris- 
totelianism, and became the predominant world-view of modern 
times.' x 

In approaching the question of the rejection of scholas- 
ticism, therefore, it is both our duty and our privilege to- 
day to consider the two world-views with no antecedent 
prejudice in favour of the modern. 



Not even the briefest account of scholasticism can be 
attempted here. I will merely give a few examples of the 
way in which the scholastic mind worked, in the hope 
that we may then understand more clearly why the seven- 
teenth century wished to reject its methods. 

Scholastic thought was predominantly metaphysical ; it 
was concerned, that is to say, with Being and Essence, 
Cause and End. It existed to give answers to the questions 
that children ask, but which the adult consciousness first 
dismisses as unanswerable and then forgets — questions 
taking the form of 'Why?' 'Whence?' 'What is it made 
of?' and 'Who made it, or put it there?' Questions so 
searching, it has been said, are not really questions at all, 
but requests for emotional assurance. This, however, 

1 The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science, pp. 236-7. 



THE REJECTION OF SCHOLASTICISM 1 3 

does not alter their status as signs of a deep human need, 
the need for a formula which will express our sense of the 
quality of all things. Our first demand (in Arnold's 
phrases) is for 'an explanation in black and white of the 
mystery of existence'; then, unless our demand is met by 
an authoritative body of doctrine living in our time, we 
either grow indifferent, or fall back upon poetry, which 
can arouse in us a sense of the mystery, without 'explain- 
ing' it. Scholasticism was able to give this black-and- 
white explanation because it was a science of Being; its 
explanations were all given in terms of the forms, quali- 
ties, origins and ends of things. This peculiarity was due 
to the fact that scholasticism was, in the main, a synthesis 
of the two great traditions inherited by the Middle Ages, 
those of pagan antiquity and Latin Christianity. In St 
Thomas Aquinas Aristotle is harmonised with Paul and 
Augustine, metaphysics with revelation, reason with 
faith. In this great synthesis theology was supreme, and 
the 'truth' of any proposition thus depended ultimately, 
not upon its correspondence with any particular 'state of 
affairs', but upon its being consistent with a body oi given 
and of course unquestionable doctrine. 1 St Thomas sees 
the universe as a hierarchy of creatures ordered to the 
attainment of perfection in their several kinds. All things 
proceed from God; and God is not only the ground of 
their being but also the Supreme Good with which all seek 
to be reunited. God created the world that he might 
communicate himself more fully; as First Mover (the 
'unmoved mover' of Aristotle) he impels all creatures to 
desire him. Love is thus 'the deepest spring of all 
causality'. 2 God not only created, but continuously sus- 
tains the world, and governs it both directly by the eternal 

1 Cf. I. A. Richards, Mencius on the Mind, p. in ff. 

2 Gilson, The Philosophy of St Thomas Aquinas, trans, by E. Bullough, 
p. 197. 



14 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

laws, and indirectly through (for instance) the angels, and 
through the celestial bodies upon whose motions all 
terrestrial motion depends. To all creatures he has 
given a 'nature' or 'form' in virtue of which they are 
necessitated both to be what they are, and to seek that 
which is proper to them. Thus earth, and heavy bodies, 
tend downwards; fire and light bodies upwards. All 
motion is a striving to actualise what is as yet only poten- 
tial. Though binding Nature thus fast in fate, God has 
in a sense left free the human will. The formal principle 
of man as such is the rational Soul ; and virtue, for man, 
is therefore action conformable to reason. Whereas 
Nature cannot but conform to unalterable law, man, 
through his will, is determined to 'good', yet is capable, 
since the Fall, of making erroneous choices both of ends 
and means. He is, as it were, less perfect than the other 
creatures in virtue of the very gift of reason which makes 
him their superior. Further, his 'form' being his rational 
soul, he is ordered to the attainment of no limited per- 
fection like the other creatures. Nothing short of the 
Supreme Good, God Himself, can be his end. Thus man 
by his very nature is oriented towards the supernatural 
world; he was created for beatitude, and he has super- 
natural grace to aid him in attaining it. In these affirma- 
tions we see something of the technique by which 
Thomism blends Aristotle with Christian theology. In 
scholasticism faith is indeed above reason, but not con- 
trary to it; and the chief aim of this teaching is to show 
that reason, when exercising itself upon its ■proper object \ must 
necessarily lead towards faith, or confirm its dogmas. 
And the 'proper object' of intelligence is Being; the 
proper study of mankind is God. 

It may be said, then, that for the scholastics there was 
little or no distinction between a 'fact' and a theological 



THE REJECTION OF SCHOLASTICISM 1 5 

or metaphysical 'truth'. For them the important con- 
sideration was not how things behave, or what their his- 
tory might be, but how they were linked with Total 
Being, and what, in a word, was their metaphysical status. 
This was satisfying enough to a period in which men's 
interests were oriented towards a transcendental 'reality', 
but it was unfavourable to what, since the Renaissance, 
has been called 'science'. This science has achieved what 
it has achieved precisely by abstracting from the whole of 
'reality' those aspects which are amenable to its methods. 
There is no point in denying that only thus can 'scien- 
tific' discovery be made. What we need to remember, 
however, is, that we have to do here with a transference of 
interests rather than with the mere 'exantlation' of new 
truth or the mere rejection of error. All we can say is 
that at the Renaissance men began to wish for a new life- 
orientation, and that this involved a hitherto unthought- 
of degree of control over 'things'. Accordingly, the sort 
of knowledge which dealt with the motions of bodies came 
to seem the most real, the most genuine knowledge, and 
scientific 'truth' the only genuine 'truth'. 'Truth' of 
some kind cannot be denied to the knowledge on which 
modern civilisation rests, the knowledge which enables us 
to construct aeroplanes and wireless-sets, to weigh the 
atom and chart the mysterious universe. We have merely 
come to see that this kind of knowledge does not exhaust 
reality, and that in the unreduced remainder may lie 
'truths' 'belonging to our peace'. Little now, in our 
'changing world', seems to matter except the quality of 
our living. We have to try to live, somehow, amidst the 
machines we have made and the debris into which they 
are falling; significance has somehow to be imparted to 
the 'unwilling dross'. There can be no return, I believe, 
to the specific thought-forms of scholasticism, but we are 
once more asking the fundamental questions. As soon as 



1 6 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

we try to live more wholly and more deeply we become 
aware of all that experiment and observation leave un- 
touched. We must ask 'What', 'Whence' and 'Why'; 
we differ from St Thomas mainly in having no direct 
replies to give. All we can do is to reply in terms of 'As 
If; 'live according to the best hypotheses (whatever 
they may be)', thus runs our reply to the questioner, 'live 
thus, and see if you can live the hypotheses into "truths" 
(truths for yourself, that is).' 

With these considerations in mind, let us examine an 
actual example of the rejection of scholasticism by a 
seventeenth century scientist. The theory of motion was 
the keystone of seventeenth century science : let us then 
compare the views of Galileo, the pioneer of scientific 
investigation on this subject, with those of St Thomas 
Aquinas. 

St Thomas, following Aristotle, treats motion as a 
branch of metaphysics; he is interested in why it happens, 
not how. He discusses it in terms of 'act' and 'potency', 
quoting Aristotle's definition of it (8 Phys. v. 8) as 'the 
act of that which is in potentiality, as such'. 1 Motion 
exists, then, because things in a state of potentiality seek 
to actualise themselves, or because they seek the place or 
direction which is proper to them. 

'Everything moved, as such, tends as towards a divine like- 
ness, to be perfect in itself; and since a thing is perfect in so far 
as it becomes actual, it follows that the intention of everything 
that is in potentiality is to tend to actuality by way of movement.' 2 

To every body in respect of its 'form', is 'due' a 
' proper place ', towards which it tends to move in a straight 
line. Thus it is 'due to fire, in respect of its form, to be 
in a higher place', 3 or to a stone, to be in a lower. 

1 Summa Contra Gentiles, bk. i. ch. 13. 

2 ibid., bk. iii. ch. 22. 

3 ibid., ch. 23. 



THE REJECTION OF SCHOLASTICISM 1 7 

It is unnecessary to controvert theories of this kind as 
if they were 'untrue'. Their 'truth' is not of the empir- 
ical kind; it consists in their being consistent with a certain 
world-view. For St Thomas the world-view with which 
they were consistent was a datum supplied by divine 
authority. For us the notion of 'revelation' may have 
acquired a different content, but it must be remembered 
that those of us who affirm the 'reality', for example, of 
religious, or poetic experience, are appealing to a prin- 
ciple essentially similar. Possibly the survival-value of 
the 'revelation' concept is due to its having symbolised 
our need to accept certain experiences as 'true', not 
because they are empirically demonstrable, but simply 
because they are 'given'. 

Galileo typifies the direction of modern interests, in 
this instance, not in refuting St Thomas, but in taking no 
notice of him. Motion might be all that the angelic 
doctor had declared it to be; Galileo nevertheless will 
drop weights from the top of a tower, and down inclined 
planes, to see how they behave. It is undeniable that the 
scholastic theory of motion informs us nothing of the 
manner in which bodies move in space and time, and this 
was precisely what Galileo wished to determine. He is 
concerned with quantities, not qualities; and his energy is 
thus devoted not to framing theories consistent with a 
rational scheme, but to measuring the speed of falling 
bodies in terms of time and space. After repeated 
measurements, he arrives at a mathematical formula ex- 
pressing the 'law' of their acceleration; he finds, for 
instance, that 'their speed is proportional to the time of 
fall' and that 'the space described increases as the square 
of the time'. 1 

But the contrast between St Thomas and Galileo is 
even more instructive when we consider their views on 

1 Dampier-Whetham, Hist, of Science, p. 144. 



1 8 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

an empirical question, the nature and movements of the 
heavenly bodies. In the scholastic doctrine of the 
heavenly bodies we have an illustration of the strange 
fact that a belief can be metaphysically 'true* (in the sense 
of 'coherent' or 'consistent') and yet empirically false, 
that is, not in correspondence with what we call a 'state 
of affairs'. The received scholastic doctrine, for instance, 
taught that the heavenly bodies are unalterable and in- 
corruptible. This belief seems to have rested on the 
assumption (fact, as it then appeared) that the motions of 
the heavenly bodies were circular. The 'elements' — of 
fire, air, water and earth — of which all sublunary objects 
were compounded, moved in straight lines towards the 
places proper to them, fire and air 'upwards', water and 
earth 'downwards'. The elements thus have 'con- 
traries', away from which they move; all straight-line 
movements, it was held, imply the existence of such a 
'contrary'. But the heavenly bodies move in circles, thus 
their movement shows them to be without a 'contrary'. 
And that which was without a contrary must be exempt 
from generation and corruption, since, according to Aris- 
totle, all generated objects proceed from their contraries 
and are corrupted again into contraries. It therefore fol- 
lows that the heavenly bodies are incorruptible. 1 Another 
way of expressing the same view was in terms of 'matter' 
and 'form'. In all corruptible things the 'form' fails to 
penetrate the 'matter' completely — it does not quite in- 
form its tenement of clay, therefore the object is in a state 
of potentiality, therefore it moves. But in the stars 'the 
form fills the whole potentiality of matter, so that the 
matter retains no potentiality to another form'. The 
stars 'consist of their entire matter'. 2 Their circular 
movement is the only kind of movement 'proper' to such 

1 See, e.g., Summa Theologica, pt. ii. qu. 85, art. 6. 

2 S. Contra G., bk. iii. ch. 23. 



THE REJECTION OF SCHOLASTICISM 1 9 

perfectly realised creatures as the heavenly bodies; cir- 
cular movement being held, it must be remembered, to be 
inherently 'noble', 'perfect', or, as we might say, expres- 
sive of self-completeness. 

It was against these and suchlike beliefs that the early 
upholders of Copernicanism had to contend. The 
Copernican theory was unacceptable at first chiefly be- 
cause it obliterated the traditional distinction between 
corruptible and incorruptible, placing the earth, as it were, 
amongst the heavenly bodies. Accordingly we find 
Galileo tackling the 'incorruptibility' theory at the begin- 
ning of his System of the World. The main purport of the 
First Dialogue is to refute Aristotle and the schools, and 
to demonstrate that the earth is one of the celestial bodies, 
'and as it were place it in Heaven, whence your Philo- 
sophers have exiled it'. 1 He argues that though there 
may be no 'contrary' to circular motion, 'contrariety' of 
some kind can be found amongst the heavenly bodies; 
for example, 'rarity' and 'density'. But the argument 
upon which he, like all the anti-scholastics of the seven- 
teenth century, really relies, is the appeal to observation. 
It is through his Optic Glass that the Tuscan Artist 2 views 
the heavens, descrying new lands, rivers or mountains in 
the moon. By means of the telescope Galileo has observed 
generation and corruption going on in the heavens. 

'We have in our age new accidents and observations, and 
such, that I question not in the least, but if Aristotle were 
now alive, they would make him change his opinion.' 3 

Comets have been observed which have been 

'generated and dissolved in parts higher than the Lunar Orb, 
besides the two new Stars, Anno 1572 and Anno 1604, 

1 Galileo, Mathematical Collections and Translations, translated by Thomas 
Salusbury, 166 1, p. 25. 

2 Paradise Lost, i. 288. 3 Galileo, op. cit., p. 37. 



20 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

without contradiction much higher than all the Planets; and 
in the face of the Sun itself, by help of the Telescope, certain 
dense and obscure substances, in substance very like to the 
foggs about the Earth, are seen to be produced and dissolved. ' x 

Thus the metaphysical theory of the heavens is con- 
fronted by comets, new stars, and sun-spots seen through 
the telescope ; and Salviatus, speaking for Galileo himself, 
makes much of an alleged saying of Aristotle that we 
ought to prefer sense-evidence to logic. Knowledge so 
gained is far more certain than any deduction from purely 
rational premises; it is more certain, therefore, that there 
are sun-spots, or mountains in the moon, than that the 
heavens are unalterable. This was then far from seeming 
the obvious 'truth' that it has appeared to most people 
ever since. The Professor of Philosophy at Padua refused 
to look through Galileo's telescope, and his colleague at 
Pisa tried by means of logical arguments, to 'charm the 
new planets out of the sky'. 2 One must, however, make 
the effort to conceive a point of view from which the notion 
of lunar mountains, for example, would be abhorrent. 
They would be abhorrent to the Peripatetic as derogations 
from the moon's 'perfection', which implied her perfect 
sphericity (the 'sphere' being the most 'perfect' of solids). 3 
Galileo makes it his affair to deny that incorruptibility, 
inalterability and sphericity are necessary attributes of 
' perfection ' . It is more ' noble ' for the earth, for example, 
to be as it is than to be like a lump of crystal ; 4 and if for 
the earth, why not for the stars? The far-reaching im- 
plications of this view must not be followed out here, but 
we should note this as a good early example of veneration 
for 'things-as-they-are' rather than ' things-as-they-can-be- 
conceived'. 

Again, scholasticism taught that the movements of the 

1 Galileo, op. cit., pp. 37-8. 2 Dampier-Whetham, op. cit., p. 142. 

3 Galileo, op. cit., p. 69. 4 ibid., p. 45. 



THE REJECTION OF SCHOLASTICISM 21 

heavenly bodies implied the presence of a constant im- 
pelling force: 

'Now one place is not more due to a heavenly body in respect 
of its form than another. Therefore nature alone is not the 
principle of the heavenly movement : and consequently the 
principle of its movement must be something that moves it by 
apprehension'; x 

— that is, an intellectual substance; in a word, the Un- 
moved Mover of Aristotle and St Thomas. 

'And since whatever is moved by anything per se, and not 
accidentally, is directed thereby towards the end of its move- 
ment, and since the heavenly body is moved by an intellectual 
substance, and the heavenly body, by its movement, causes all 
movement in this lower world, it follows of necessity that the 
heavenly body is directed to the end of its movement by an intel- 
lectual substance, and consequently all lower bodies to their 
respective ends.' 2 

Against this comprehensive theory (indeed, it is more 
than a theory, it is a religious affirmation) Galileo sets the 
new principle of inertia. Constant exertion of force is not 
required to account for the incessant motions of the 
heavens, since motion, like immobility, once in being, 
will persist until affected by some force. Only the 
primary impulse of the First Mover, then, need be postu- 
lated ; not his continual action. And it only remained for 
Newton to 'explain' why the motion of the heavenly 
bodies was circular (elliptical) and not in straight lines. 
Galileo admitted that he knew nothing about the ultimate 
nature of the forces he was measuring; nothing about 
the cause of gravitation, or the origin of the Universe; he 
deemed it better, rather than to speculate on such high 
matters, 'to pronounce that wise, ingenious and modest 
sentence, "I know it not'". 3 

1 S. Contra G., bk. iii. ch. 23. ibid., ch. 24. 

3 Dampier-Whetham, op. cit., p. 146. 



22 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

I have already hinted that I think we should cultivate 
the habit of looking steadily at this intellectual revolution, 
vigorously checking any propensity to an outrush of un- 
critical sympathy for either side. We have to be on our 
guard, I think, as much against those who represent the 
rejection of scholasticism as pure loss, as against those 
who regard it as pure gain. It is only because for three 
hundred years almost everybody has united to extol it as 
pure gain, that we may be forgiven for leaning a little (as 
Aristotle advises) towards the opposite side, so as to 
restore the true mean. With this reservation let us 
boldly declare that the rejection was not wholly disas- 
trous. We are compelled to deem it no mere calamity as 
long as we believe that, though 'truth' has many levels, 
it is at each and every level preferable to 'error'. Do we 
really believe this? A good way of testing our condition 
is to ask ourselves: do we or do we not approve the 
action of the Paduan professor who refused to look 
through Galileo's telescope? If we find that we condemn 
the professor, we have already decided on the main issue. 
To applaud him is by no means impossible for a reason- 
able being. But we must remember that if we do so, we 
are committed to a belief which may prove inconvenient 
or even perilous if generally applied: the belief, namely, 
that truth of a lower order may be neglected in order that 
higher truths may be conserved. Neglect of the crudest 
empirical truths would cut short our frail existences very 
soon ; observance of them, on the other hand, is what 
renders possible our devoting our higher energies to the 
metaphysical realities. The really difficult thing (the 
thing we have all to attempt) is to realise — not merely to 
be mentally aware — that 'Truth' (as applied to our 
thoughts, beliefs or statements) is not absolute and 'One', 
but manifold. Whoever doubts this would be well ad- 
vised to read Dr Richards's recent work, Mencius on the 



THE REJECTION OF SCHOLASTICISM 23 

Mind, 1 in which the writer enumerates nine distinct types 
of senses of 'truth', not to mention several 'gestures' (or 
emotive uses) of the term. Our task then, it would seem, 
is to avoid the old error of neglecting one order of truth 
in favour of another, and, as far as possible, to cultivate 
the capacity to pass freely from one order to another, 
acknowledging the value of that saying of Sir T. Browne's 
(recently given deserved prominence by Dr Joseph 
Needham) : 

'Thus is Man that great and true Amphibium whose nature 
is disposed to live, not only like other creatures in divers ele- 
ments, but in divided and distinguished worlds.' 

On the other hand, as I have perhaps sufficiently sug- 
gested already, the rejection of scholasticism was not a 
pure gain. In so far as it led to an undue elevation of 
empirical 'truth', and an attribution to it of a special 
privilege to represent 'reality', it was a disaster. It was 
not the fault of the early scientists that their methods and 
their abstractions were mistaken for philosophies, but 
none the less this is what has tended to happen. Few 
to-day (and I believe still fewer to-morrow) can really 
wish to revive scholasticism in toto\ as an account of 
reality it is far too exclusively intellectual and rational. 
But its great value must be preserved somehow: its testi- 
mony to the primacy of the 'truths' of religious experi- 
ence. We may not want these 'truths' theologically and 
metaphysically expressed; but we do want to be able to 
experience reality in all its rich multiplicity, instead of 
being condemned by the modern consciousness to go on 

'Viewing all objects, unremittingly 
In disconnection dead and spiritless. ' 

1 See especially ch. iv. pp. 111-16. 



CHAPTER II 



Bacon and the Rehabilitation of Nature 



THE veneration accorded traditionally to Bacon is 
due in part to his having been neither a mathe- 
matician nor a metaphysician, but a master of 
language, so that his works have been more widely under- 
stood and admired than those of more first-hand philo- 
sophers. Bacon had the ability, and the singular good 
fortune, to be the buccinator novi temporis in England; 
and his oracular deliverances have seemed, to most people 
for the past three centuries, to embody the very charter 
of intellectual liberty. Even to-day the unwary reader of 
Bacon will hardly avoid according to him the kind of 
response which became stereotyped in the eighteenth and 
nineteenth centuries : ' How true ', he will find himself feel- 
ing, 'how profoundly true! A superb clearance of medi- 
aeval cobwebs ! Final banishment of nonsense!' and the 
like. Bacon's reasons for rejecting the Peripatetic-scholastic 
tradition and for proposing a transference of interest from 
abstract speculation to observation of nature, have already 
been hinted at above, and are in any case so well known that 
I will here merely quote a few sentences of the kind to 
which it has been usual to respond in the manner indicated : 

'Being convinced, by a careful observation, that the human 
understanding perplexes itself, or makes not a sober and advan- 
tageous use of the real helps within its reach, whence manifold 
ignorance and inconveniences arise, he was determined to employ 
his utmost endeavours towards restoring or cultivating a just and 
legitimate familiarity between the mind and things/ l 

1 Magna Instauratio, opening sentence. 
24 



BACON AND THE REHABILITATION OF NATURE 2$ 

'The philosophy we principally received from the Greeks 
must be acknowledged puerile, or rather talkative than genera- 
tive — as being fruitful in controversies, but barren of effects.' 1 

'The understanding, left to itself, ought always to be sus- 
pected. . . . Logic ... by no means reaches the subtilty of 
nature.' 

'Our method is continually to dwell among things soberly 
... to establish for ever a true and legitimate union between 
the experimental and rational faculty.' 2 

'Those, therefore, who determine not to conjecture and guess, 
but to find out and know; not to invent fables and romances of 
worlds, but to look into, and dissect the nature of this real world, 
must consult only things themselves.' 3 

'Surely, like as many substances in nature which are solid do 
putrify and corrupt into worms; so it is the property of good and 
sound knowledge to putrify and dissolve into a number of subtle, 
idle, unwholesome, and (as I may term them) vermiculate ques- 
tions, which have indeed a kind of quickness and life of spirit, but 
no soundness of matter or goodness of quality. This kind of de- 
generate learning did chiefly reign among the schoolmen: who, 
having sharp and strong wits, and abundance of leisure, and small 
variety of reading, but their wits being shut up in the cells of a 
few authors (chiefly Aristotle their dictator) as their persons 
were shut up in the cells of monasteries and colleges, and know- 
ing little history, either of nature or time, did out of no great 
quantity of matter and infinite agitation of wit spin out unto us 
those laborious webs of learning which are extant in their books. 
For the wit and mind of man, if it work upon matter, which is 
the contemplation of the creatures of God, worketh according to 
the stuff and is limited thereby; but if it work upon itself, as the 
spider worketh his web, then it is endless, and brings forth indeed 
cobwebs of learning, admirable for the fineness of thread and 
work, but of no substance or profit.' 4 

We can hardly, at the present day, read these noble 
utterances with quite the old thrill; the effects of 'con- 
tinually dwelling among things' have not, in the long 
run, proved so exhilarating after all. Yet, although we 

1 Preface to De Augmentis, p. 3 (Bohn ed.). - ibid., pp. 6-8. 

3 ibid., p. 16. * Advancement of Learning, pp. 31-2 (my italics). 



l6 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

have abandoned the contempt for scholasticism which was 
traditional during the eighteenth and nineteenth, cen- 
turies, we must remember that Bacon's intention through- 
out his work was not to reject metaphysical 'truth', but 
to prescribe for his age a massive dose of 'truth' of 
another order. Given that experimental science had been 
neglected, and that the age needed and demanded it above 
all things, then Bacon's role was to indicate with fine 
magniloquence the path by which alone 'science' could 
advance. This he did, while other men, such as Galileo, 
Harvey or Gilbert, in whom he took comparatively little 
interest, were actually achieving great discoveries on the 
principles which he taught. Bacon's great service to 
'science' was that he gave it an incomparable advertise- 
ment, by associating with it his personal prestige, his 
' Elizabethan ' glamour, and his great literary power. The 
feeling of ' Tightness' with which English and other scien- 
tists proceeded in succeeding centuries must have been 
due, in part, to his persuasiveness. 

It was not the living core of mediaeval thought — its 
witness to other than empirical realities — that Bacon 
wished to kill. There was so much else to criticise in the 
mediaeval tradition — so much pseudo-science, magic, 
alchemy, astrology, and the like — that Bacon and his age 
generally cannot be blamed for feeling that their task was 
simply the separation of truth from error, fact from fable, 
reality from fiction. 

The situation was, that while the central metaphysical 
affirmations of the schoolmen might be true, many of 
their deductions in the region of 'things' were false, and 
it was precisely in this region of 'things' that the new age 
wanted soberly and continually to live. There was thus a 
likelihood that however clearly the pioneers might see 
that experimental science was not a metaphysic (and 
Bacon and Galileo saw this), their followers might forget 



BACON AND THE REHABILITATION OF NATURE 27 

it. Men have never found it easy to live 'in divided and 
distinguished worlds'; they will have the one, or the 
other, exclusively, but not both at once. What was sound 
in the mediaeval tradition tended more and more to be 
rejected along with the quackery. 

What we should doubtless have liked to get from 
Bacon is a classification of the meanings of such words as 
'Truth', 'Reality', and a clear realisation that as such 
meanings are multiple, not single, we need not be denying 
'Truth' of one kind when we affirm 'Truth' of another. 
As, however, Dr I. A. Richards and Mr C. K. Ogden 
are still, even to-day, rather lonely pioneers in this field 
of research, it would be unreasonable to expect Bacon to 
have been fully alive to the linguistic aspects of the 
problem of 'Truth'. The remarkable thing, however, is 
that we get from him as much as we do, for he does pro- 
vide some very significant hints in this direction. He is 
concerned to insist that Truth is twofold. There is truth 
of religion, and truth of science; and these different kinds 
of truth must be kept separate. This position is the in- 
evitable result of any attempt to combine nominalism in 
philosophy with acceptance of religious dogma, and in 
this respect Bacon belongs with Duns Scotus and Occam. 
If you hold that individual 'things' are alone real, and 
reject universals and abstractions as 'names', mere flatus 
vocis: if you do this, and yet cling to a body of doctrine 
like the Christian, which implies that much else is 'real' 
besides 'things', you have no alternative but to accept the 
strange dichotomy of 'Truth', and to try, as far as pos- 
sible, to keep the two kinds from contaminating each 
other. (It must be remembered that belief in the superior 
reality of 'things', or 'facts', rests on the assumptions 
that objectivity is the criterion of reality, and that 'things' 
are objective. Little meaning could have been attached, 
in the seventeenth century, except in the sense indicated 



28 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

by Cudworth, 1 to the theory that the mind is in some sense 
constitutive of reality, even a 'fact' being in part a thing 
made, an act of the mind. To this question we shall 
have to return later.) 

Bacon's views on the twofold nature of Truth are 
summed up in the oft-quoted phrase: 'It is therefore 
most wise soberly to render unto faith the things that are 
faith's.' 2 From the 'absurd mixture of matters divine 
and human' proceed heresies and 'fantastical philosophy.' 
Science ('philosophy') has hitherto been corrupted by the 
admixture of theology, superstition, logic, fancy, or 
poetry; now we must try to have it pure. A few sen- 
tences from the De Augmentis z will further illustrate 
Bacon's position: 

'Sacred theology must be drawn from the word and oracles 
of God, not from the light of nature, or the dictates of 
reason.' 

(To study theology) 'we must quit the small vessel of human 
reason, and put ourselves on board the ship of the Church, 
which alone possesses the divine needle for justly shaping the 
course.' 

'We are obliged to believe the word of God, though our 
reason be shocked at it. For if we should believe only such 
things as are agreeable to our reason, we assent to the matter, 
and not to the author.' 

'And therefore, the more absurd and incredible any divine 
mystery is, the greater honour we do to God in believing it; and 
so much the more noble the victory of faith.' 

It is a fallacy to try to confirm the truths of religion by 
the principles of science — this is another example of the 
mingling of things divine and human. 4 Neither must we 
try to extract scientific truth out of the Scriptures, like 
some, who, Bacon says, 'have endeavoured to build a 
system of natural philosophy on the first chapter of 

Cf. below, pp. 156 ff. - Nov. Org., I. Lxv. 

• 3 Bk. ix. pp. 368 ff. (Bohn). « Cf. Nov. Org., Ixxxix. 



BACON AND THE REHABILITATION OF NATURE 2<) 

Genesis, the book of Job, and other parts of Scripture'. 1 
The reason Bacon gives for condemning this practice is 
strange; it is wrong, says he, because it is 'seeking the 
dead amongst the living', 2 or the temporal in the eternal. 
It shakes one's confidence in Bacon's sincerity to find the 
science which he heralds classified by him amongst 'the 
dead'. And in fact there is something of the ceremonial 
and formal obeisance about many of his salutes to religion. 
I do not believe that he (any more than Browne, when he 
made a similar remark) intended any conscious irony 
when he wrote that 'the more absurd and incredible any 
divine mystery is, the greater honour we do to God in 
believing it'; though irony began to creep into remarks 
like this not long afterwards, and was perhaps always 
present in eighteenth century examples. But what can 
be asserted with confidence, I think, is that Bacon's desire 
to separate religious truth and scientific truth was in the 
interests of science, not of religion. He wished to keep 
science pure from religion ; the opposite part of the process 
— keeping religion pure from science — did not interest 
him nearly so much. What he harps on is always how 
science has been hampered at every stage by the prejudice 
and conservatism of theologians. After three hundred 
years of science we now have writers pleading for religion 
in an age dominated by science; 3 Bacon was pleading 
for science in an age dominated by religion. Religious 
truth, then, must be ' skied ', elevated far out of reach, not 
in order that so it may be more devoutly approached, but 
in order to keep it out of mischief. But having secured 
his main object, namely, to clear the universe for science, 
Bacon can afford to be quite orthodox (just as, in another 
context, he can concede poetry to human weakness). He 
prays eloquently that the new light, when it comes, may 

1 Cf. No<v. Org., lxv. 2 ibid., and De Aug., bk. ix. 

3 Cf. Needham, The Great Ampkibium. And D. H. Lawrence, passim. 



30 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

not make men incredulous of divine mystery. It has been 
objected against science that it leads to atheism, through 
concentration on second causes; to this Bacon replies that 
though science is, or should be, the study of second 
causes, God works in Nature only by second causes, and 
that thus, though natural philosophy can teach us nothing 
directly of God, the study of it leads us inevitably to Him 
in the end. 

* Undoubtedly a superficial tincture of philosophy may incline 
the mind to atheism, yet a farther knowledge brings it back to 
religion; for on the threshold of philosophy, where second 
causes appear to absorb the attention, some oblivion of the highest 
cause may ensue; but when the mind goes deeper, and sees the 
dependence of causes and the works of Providence, it will easily 
perceive, according to the mythology of the poets, that the upper 
link of Nature's chain is fastened to Jupiter's throne.' x 

These are brave words, and their tone bespeaks their sin- 
cerity. They belong to what might be called the 'heroic' 
stage of liberal thought, at which it is fervently declared, 
not only that all new knowledge can be safely embraced 
without fear of endangering older beliefs, but that the 
new knowledge in reality supplies those beliefs with their 
firmest support. Bacon, we may now think, was on safer 
ground when he was urging the separation of the spheres 
of religion and science than when he was trying to 
reconcile them. 

However, the circumstances of his age were such that 
Bacon's plea for the Advancement of Learning necessarily 
assumed a theological cast. He could not proceed with- 
out first dealing with the religious objections to science, 
and showing that the studies he advocated were con- 
sistent with the faith. How he treated these matters we 
must consider in the next section. 

1 De Aug., pp. 31-2. 



BACON AND THE REHABILITATION OF NATURE 3 1 



The notion of a 'forbidden' knowledge is ingrained 
deeply in the human race; but widely different views 
have been held as to which kind of knowledge was the 
forbidden kind. Broadly it may be guessed that the 
knowledge which in any age is 'forbidden', is always 
that which presents itself as a distraction or seducement 
from what is then considered the main purpose of living. 
At the very outset of The Advancement of Learning Bacon 
is confronted with the mediaeval conception of natural 
science as the forbidden knowledge. It is objected, he 
says, by divines, that 'knowledge puffeth up', that it 
'hath somewhat of the serpent', that (in a word) it was 
the original cause of the Fall of Man. Marlowe's Faustus 
had appeared not long before The Advancement of Learn- 
ing, and the Faustus legend testifies to the strength of the 
fascinated dread with which the Middle Ages had 
thought of natural science. From the earliest days of 
man there had Of course been evil forces in Nature to be 
feared and propitiated; but during the Christian cen- 
turies 'Nature' had, in quite a special sense, been con- 
signed to the Satanic order. Both the myth-making 
instinct of paganism and the Stoic yearning for the Uni- 
verse as the City of God were checked by the Pauline 
and Augustinian theology, which represented Nature 
(including man) as depraved since the Fall, and as groan- 
ing under the divine malediction. The divine order, the 
order of Grace, was felt to be wholly separate from, and 
in a sense opposed to, 'Nature'. The sense which above 
all marks the Christian consciousness, of sin in man and 
of imperfection in Nature, expressed itself in a virtual 
dualism, the Satanic forces being as real as the divine, if 
less powerful. The 'beggarly elements' of Nature, as 
St Paul calls them, were handed over to the Prince of the 



32 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

Air and his fallen angels, who were soon identified with 
the dethroned divinities of the heathen pantheons. At 
the Nativity of Christ, in Milton's Ode: 

'Nature in awe to Him 
Had doff't her gaudy trim.' 
and 

'woos the gentle Air 
To hide her guilty front with innocent snow, 
And on her naked shame, 
Pollute with sinful blame, 

The saintly veil of maiden white to throw; 
Confounded, that her Maker's eyes 
Should look so near upon her foul deformities.' 

To escape upwards from this Satan-ridden earth, and the 
body of this death, beyond the planetary spheres with 
their disastrous influences, into the divine empyrean — 
this was the purpose of living, this the effort of the 
believer; and only by divine grace supernaturally medi- 
ated was success possible. Whatever diverted attention 
from this supreme object would be liable to rank as 'for- 
bidden'. Even the female sex was held by some theo- 
logians to belong to the Satanic order, Chrysostom calling 
woman a 'desirable calamity'. 1 How much more sinful, 
then, to interest oneself in Nature's ungodly secrets! 
Since earth, water, air and fire were the allotted spheres 
of the several hierarchies of evil spirits, 2 to study nature 
meant to repeat the original sin of Adam; it meant a 

1 Lecky, Hist, of Rationalism, vol. i. p. 78. Compare Milton's ' fair defect '. 

2 Cf. Hooker, Ecclesiastical Polity, bk. i. sect. 4 : ' For being dispersed, some 
in the air, some on the earth, some in the water, some among the minerals, 
dens, and caves that are under the earth ; they have by all means laboured to 
effect a universal rebellion against the laws, and as far as in them lieth utter 
destruction of the works of God. These wicked Spirits the heathens honoured 
instead of gods, both generally under the name of dii inferi, " gods infernal " ; 
and particularly, some in oracles, some in idols, some as household gods, some 
as nymphs ; in a word, no foul and wicked spirit which was not one way or 
other honoured of men as God,-till such time as light appeared in the world and 
dissolved the works of the Devil.' 



BACON AND THE REHABILITATION OF NATURE 23 

compact with the devil and the death of the soul. Astro- 
logy, alchemy and black magic are the (popular) mediaeval 
names for science, just as 'heresy' was the name for any 
trust, such as Pelagius showed, in the natural virtue of 
man. 

On the other hand, that it had at any rate once been 
possible to think of science quite differently, the Prome- 
theus myth was there to testify. The purveyor of know- 
ledge and civilisation might be the friend, and not the 
Adversary, of man. Bacon's task, it may be said, was to 
prove that natural science was Promethean and not 
Mephistophelean . 

It is vain to assign to any particular date the waning of 
the theological view of nature and man, and its replace- 
ment by the more indulgent 'humanist' view. Mediaeval 
culture was to a considerable extent 'humanistic' long 
before the Renaissance. The process was spread over 
many centuries, and both views have perhaps always co- 
existed, down to the present day. All one can say is that 
at certain times the one is the dominant 'orthodoxy', at 
other times the other. It was likely that as the prosperity 
and stability of civilisation gradually increased, the distinc- 
tion between nature and supernature would become less 
and less harsh. The doctrines of 'grace' and 'original 
sin' may, as has been suggested, have arisen out of the 
despair accompanying the disintegration of the ancient 
world; 'but as life became more secure man became less 
otherworldly'. 1 For practical purposes, however, in spite 
of such harbingers as Petrarch, we may perhaps take the 
later fifteenth and the sixteenth centuries as the epoch of 
the rebirth of confidence in 'Nature'. In encountering 
such men as More, Montaigne and Bacon we find our- 
selves at the beginning of a process which continues for 
about three centuries, and culminates in what we may 

1 Babbitt, Rousseau and Romanticism, p. 116. 



34 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

perhaps call the age of Wordsworth (meaning by that 
term the age of Wordsworthian influence as well). In 
Montaigne, for example, one can discover almost all the 
attitudes usually associated with the naturalism of the 
later eighteenth century. He continually exalts Nature 
over conventions, codes and systems : 

'Whoever contemplates our mother Nature in her full 
majesty and lustre is alone able to value things in their true 
estimate. 



' 1 



Although wisdom is what he craves for, he believes health 
and cheerfulness to be even more important, or rather, to 
be necessary ingredients of wisdom. At the beginning of 
the nineteenth century it was not extravagant to speak of 

'Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health, 
Truth breathed by cheerfulness ; ' 

but in a learned and pedantic age like the sixteenth cen- 
tury it was startlingly original to write : 

'This book employment is as painful as any other, and as 
great an enemy to health, which ought to be the first thing con- 
sidered. ... If, by being over-studious, we impair our health 
and spoil our good-humour, the best pieces we have, let us give 
it over.' 2 

Montaigne had himself been brought up as a sort of 
sixteenth century Emile, and in his famous essay, Of the 
Education of Children, he expresses the naturalistic view of 
childhood : 

'How much more fitting to strew their classrooms with 
flowers and leaves than with stumps of blood-stained willow! 
I would portray there Joy, Sprightliness, Flora and the Graces.' 

Sainte-Beuve, commenting on this passage, remarks that 
here 'il passe les bornes, comme,un enfant d'Aristippe 
qui oublie le mal d'Adam'. He was 'tout simplement la 
Nature . . . la Nature au complet sans la Grace 1 . 

1 Montaigne, Of the Education of Children. 2 Montaigne, Of Solitude, 



BACON AND THE REHABILITATION OF NATURE 25 

This recrudescence of confidence in Nature was im- 
mensely strengthened by the scientific movement of the 
Renaissance, which reclaimed the physical world from its 
traditional association with Satan. In the Utopia of Sir 
Thomas More, natural philosophy is considered, not as 
'conjuring', involving a pact like that of Faust and 
Mephistopheles, but as something acceptable to God, 
and even as part of religious duty. The strength of the 
'Faust' tradition is attested by the fact that Bacon con- 
cerns himself, at the outset of his great work, to show that 
whatever the forbidden knowledge may be, it is not 
natural science. Bacon's argument is of great importance, 
because it furnished the scientists of the following two 
centuries with a technique for reconciling science with 
religion, and gave a first impulse to the movement towards 
scientific deism. Bacon's purpose requires that Nature 
should be established as divine instead of Satanic, and this 
he secures by arguing that God has revealed himself to 
man by means of two scriptures : first, of course, through 
the written word, but also, secondly, through his handi- 
work, the created universe. To study nature, therefore, 
cannot be contrary to religion ; indeed, it is part of the 
duty we owe to the great Artificer of the world. ' It was 
not', he says, 

' the pure knowledge of nature and universality, a knowledge 
by the light whereof man did give names unto other creatures 
in Paradise, as they were brought before him, according to their 
proprieties, which gave the occasion to the fall' j 1 

it was not, that is to say, natural science. It was 

'the proud knowledge of good and evil, with an intent in man to 
give law unto himself, and to depend no more on God's com- 
mandments, which was the form of the temptation.' 

To Bacon the logic-spinning of the schoolmen was a kind 

1 A. of L., bk. i. i, 3. 



36 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

of forbidden knowledge; it was a presumptuous attempt 
to read the secret purposes of God, and to force his works 
into conformity with the laws of the human mind. This 
was for him the real hubris, this metaphysical arrogance, 
which* disdains to dwell upon particulars', and confidently 
explains all things by syllogism. The true humility is 
the attribute of the Baconian scientist, who is content to 
come forth into the light of things, and let nature be his 
teacher. ' Nor could we hope to succeed, if we arrogantly 
searched for the sciences in the narrow cells of the human 
understanding, and not submissively in the wider world.' 1 
Access to the kingdom of man, which is founded on the 
sciences, resembles ' that to the kingdom of heaven, where 
no admission is conceded except to children'. 2 

The 'anti-rational' tendency of this part of Bacon's 
programme has been pointed out by Professor Whitehead. 
Nothing is more characteristic of Bacon than his distrust 
of the 'meddling intellect', which interposes too soon 
with its abstractions and distorts nature instead of explain- 
ing her. The Idol of the Tribe, that most deeply in- 
grained of our tendencies to error, is the spirit of over- 
hasty generalisation: 'The human understanding is, by 
its own nature, prone to abstraction, and supposes that 
which is fluctuating to be fixed'. 3 Man despises 

'the light of experiment, from arrogance and pride, lest his mind 
should appear to be occupied with common and varying objects.' 4 

If he had had the ordonnance of the stars, he would have 
arranged them 

'into some beautiful and elegant order, as we see in the vaulted 
roofs of palaces ... so great a difference is there betwixt the 
spirit of man, and the spirit of the universe.' 5 

1 De Aug., p. 10 (Bohn ed.). 

2 Nov. Org., lxviii. Cf. De Aug., bk. v. ch. ii. (p. 186). 
8 ibid., H. * ibid., xlix. 

6 De Aug., bk. v. ch. iv. (p. 209). 



BACON AND THE REHABILITATION OF NATURE 37 

This campaign of Bacon's against excessive rationalism is 
perhaps, to us, the most interesting aspect of his work. 
For it raises him above all mere pleaders for 'science' or 
'freedom' of thought, and associates him with those poets 
and prophets who have urged that 'wise passiveness' is 
the attitude most favourable to fine living and creating. 

'Wisdom oft 
Is nearer when we stoop than when we soar.' 

With the spirit of this, and of other similar utterances of 
Wordsworth, Bacon would have been in agreement; and 
indeed he owes much of his impressiveness to the fact 
that it is something covered by the term 'wisdom' that he 
often seems to be inculcating, not merely a new technique 
of scientific research. The humility, the submission of 
the whole self to 'things', which Bacon desiderates for 
science, is precisely what is emphasised by Keats as the 
condition of healthy growth for the poet. Keats calls this 
'negative capability, that is, when a man is capable of 
being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any 
irritable reaching after fact and reason'; and declares 
that this is the quality which goes to make 'a man of 
achievement, especially in literature, and which Shake- 
speare possessed so enormously'. 1 There is, of course, 
plenty of evidence that a lying-fallow of the mind in a 
kind of fruitful indolence is a state which often precedes 
successful imaginative creation. These intervals of wise 
passiveness seem to be times when our ordinary con- 
sciousness is almost suspended and the subconscious is 
free to incubate and to shape what is afterwards delivered 
into consciousness. Keats speaks more than once of such 
moments. 2 Wordsworth's period of 'tranquillity' seems 
to have meant much the same to him ; and we know from 

1 Keats, Letter to Geo. and Thos. Keats, Dec. 28, 1817. 

2 Cf. Letter to G. and Georgiana Keats, March 19, 18 19. 



38 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

Mrs Carswell that when Lawrence said he was doing 
nothing and did not care, a new work was often in process 
of gestation. 

' Anything worth having is growth : and to have growth, one 
must be able to let be.' 1 

It is, I think, not fanciful to apply the experience of 
poets to the elucidation of Bacon, for Bacon was in truth 
the seer, almost the poet, of the scientific movement in 
England. His very detachment from the actual work of 
experimentation protected him from all 'irritable reaching 
after fact and reason', and left him free to contemplate a 
new intimacy of union between the mind and the external 
world, and to prophesy of the creation which they, 'with 
blended might', could accomplish. 2 This was Bacon's, as 
well as Wordsworth's, 'high argument'. At the begin- 
ning of the seventeenth century science could still be 
humble, for it was now to be the study of God's Work as 
a supplement to his Word. Moreover, the natural philo- 
sopher, pitting himself against the assertive and dogmatic 
schoolman, could, excusably feel that he excelled him in 
humility. 

'Man should not dispute and assert, but whisper results to 
his neighbour.' 3 

The words are Keats's, but they well express the aspiration 
which was in Bacon. 

It is significant that Bacon's charge against scholas- 
ticism is almost identical with that of M. Maritain and 
Mr Dawson against the very movement of which Bacon 
was the herald; both parties accuse their opponents of 
pride, and of making man the measure of all things; and 
both claim to be on the side of true humility. Perhaps 
there may be in truth more than one kind of humility; a 

1 D. H. Lawrence, Letter to Rolf Gardiner, Jan. 7, 1928. 

8 Cf. Wordsworth's Recluse. 8 Keats, Letter Feb. 19, 18 18. 



BACON AND THE REHABILITATION OF NATURE 39 

humility of religion, and a humility of science. The man 
of religion humbles himself before Being; the man of 
science, before Becoming. And as long as religion is 
whispering results, as long as science is whispering 
results, so long each is showing its own proper humility. 
The greatest results in each sphere have been won 
through humility. But as 'results' accumulate, both 
begin to dispute and assert; religion ceases to be scientifi- 
cally humble, and science ceases to be metaphysically 
humble. The humility of each consists largely in keep- 
ing to its own sphere, and recognising the independent 
validity of the other. On the whole, I think, science was 
still in this condition in Bacon's time; the results were 
still scanty, and the whisperers few. If only Bacon's ex- 
posure of the Idols had been remembered, all might have 
been well. But 

k naturam expellas furca tamen usque recurred — 

and the Idol of the Tribe returned with increasing vigour 
as the Baconian method hardened into a dogmatism as 
assertive as scholasticism itself. It seems almost impos- 
sible to prevent both religion and science from becoming 
assertive in each other's sphere, even while they remain 
(as they must) humble within their own. If, swallowing 
this unpleasant truth as inevitable, we next enquire which 
is to be preferred: religion with its bye-product of 
'scientifically false' assertions, or science with its bye- 
product of 'metaphysically false' assertions? only one 
reply, I think, is possible: that alternative is to be pre- 
ferred which best satisfies the needs, or best counteracts 
the defects, of each age. Science was undoubtedly what 
was most needed at the beginning of the seventeenth cen- 
tury; and, if one's own opinion is to be given, religion 
(but not scholasticism) is what is most needed now. And 
we may gladly grant to the neo-Catholics that St Thomas 



40 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

had more, and a more important kind of humility than 
Bacon. 'To extend more widely the limits of the power 
and greatness of man' is not the ambition of the humble; 
and a certain magnificent arrogance, born of the Renais- 
sance, appears in what we know of Bacon's life, and — still 
more revealingly — in the rhythm of his sentences. 



CHAPTER III 

Sir Thomas Browne 
i 

THE 'METAPHYSICAL' 

BACON was pleading for science in an age domi- 
nated by ' religion ' ; x Browne is already — at 
least in the Religio Medici — pleading for religion 
in an age which was beginning to be dominated by science. 
This is partly what makes him so interesting to us now. 
He has been represented 2 as a type of the scientific man 
who yet retains a religious faith. And indeed he did com- 
bine in rare fashion an enthusiasm for verified truth with 
a constantly ' marvelling temper '. He was himself his 
own 'great amphibium', living simultaneously in divided 
and distinguished worlds ; or perhaps we may say his own 
Janus, the double-faced divinity he so often uses as a 
symbol of paradox. Perhaps no writer is more truly re- 
presentative of the double-faced age in which he lived, an 
age half scientific and half magical, half sceptical and half 
credulous, looking back in one direction to Maundeville, 
and forward to Newton. At one moment a Baconian 
experimentalist and herald of the new world, at another 
Browne is discoursing of cockatrices and unicorns and 
mermaids in a tone which implies that though part of him 
is incredulous, the world is still incalculable enough to 
contain such marvels. At one moment he professes him- 
self a follower of Hermes Trismegistus, and feels, panthe- 
istically, ' the warm gale and gentle ventilation ' of the 
world-soul ; at another, he accounts the world ' not an 

1 Cf. the subtitle of Dr J. Needham's The Great Amphibium. 
a ibid. 

41 



42 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

Inn, but an Hospital; a place not to live, but to Dye 
in'. 1 He exhorts us now to 'live by old Ethicks, and the 
classical rules of Honesty', 2 and now to 'Look beyond 
Antoninus, and terminate not thy morals in Seneca or 
Epictetus. Be a moralist of the Mount, and Christianize 
thy Notions.' 3 He had, in fact, what Mr T. S. Eliot has 
called the 'unified sensibility' of the 'metaphysicals', which 
was the offspring — perhaps unreproducible in different 
circumstances — of a scholastic training blended with the 
expansive curiosity of the Renaissance. It meant the 
capacity to live in divided and distinguished worlds, and 
to pass freely to and fro between one and another, to be 
capable of many and varied responses to experience, 
instead of being confined to a few stereotyped ones. 
Many different worlds or countries of the mind then lay 
close together — the world of scholastic learning, the 
world of scientific experiment, the worlds of classical 
mythology and of Biblical history, of fable and of fact, 
of theology and demonology, of sacred and profane love, 
of pagan and christian morals, of activity and contempla- 
tion ; and a cultivated man had the freedom of them all. 
They were divided and distinguished, perhaps, but not, 
as later, by such high barriers that a man was shut up for 
life in one or other of them. The distinctions were only 
beginning to be made which for later ages shut off poetry 
from science, metaphor from fact, fancy from judgment. 
The point about these different worlds was not that they 
were divided, but that they were simultaneously available. 
The major interests of life had not as yet been mechani- 
cally apportioned to specialists, so that one must dedicate 
oneself wholly to fact, or wholly to value. Bishops and 
Deans could still write excellent poetry, and an essay by 
a provincial doctor on cinerary urns — which to-day would 

1 Religio Medici, ii. sect. xi. 2 Christian Morals, i. sect. xii. 

3 ibid., iii. sect. xxi. 



SIR THOMAS BROWNE 43 

be a dull paper read to a local archaeological society — 
could also be, in De Quincey's words, an 'impassioned 
requiem breathing from the pomps of earth and from the 
sanctities of the grave'. I think that something of the 
peculiar quality of the 'metaphysical' mind is due to this 
fact of its not being finally committed to any one world. 
Instead, it could hold them all in a loose synthesis 
together, yielding itself, as only a mind in free poise can, 
to the passion of detecting analogies and correspondences 
between them. Scholastic philosophy, Christianity, the 
Classics, these (apart from first-hand emotion) supplied 
most of the material upon which metaphysical wit played ; 
it was between these worlds that its comparisons are 
chiefly made. The quality of these comparisons, their 
naivete, their surprise, comes from their being made by 
men to whom each world matters much, but not every- 
thing. 

Let us take a few examples. One of the commonest 
juxtapositions in Browne is the use of a classical image to 
enforce a Christian moral (a piece of hybridisation which 
has its obvious analogies in baroque architecture and much 
else that is typical of the age). 

'Weapons for such combats are not to be forged at Lipara: 
Vulcan's Art doth nothing in this internal Militia; wherein not 
the armour of Achilles, but the Armature of St Paul, gives the 
Glorious day, and Triumphs not leading up to Capitols, but up 
into the highest Heavens.' x 

This, I suggest, is the work of a man to whom classical 
learning meant much, but not all — for there was also 
Christianity; and conversely, to whom Christianity meant 
much, but not so much as to exclude classical culture. 
The 'divided worlds' are so equipollent that they are 
almost interchangeable. While Browne is writing as a 

1 Christian Morals, i. sect. xxiv. 



44 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

Christian, his experience as a scholar is also available to 
him ; while writing as an archaeologist, his experience as 
a mystic is available; as a naturalist, his experience as 
poet, scholar or seer. Like the metaphysicals, he seems 
to us to get his thrill rather out of the actual process of 
fusing disparates than from any 'truth' that may emerge 
from the process. The next example shows him using 
the resources of the scholar and poet to describe what to a 
specialist of later days would have been a 'mere fact' of 
petrology : Crystal, he writes, is a mineral body 

'transparent and resembling Glass or Ice, made of a lentous per- 
colation of earth, drawn from the most pure and limpid juice 
thereof, owing unto the coldness of the earth some concurrence 
or coadjuvancy, but not immediate determination and efficiency, 
which are wrought by the hand of its concretive spirit, the seeds 
of petrifaction and Gorgon of itself x 

A 'fact' to Browne, it is evident, was no mere item from 
the 'inanimate cold world' ; it was something to be felt as 
well as thought about; it 'lay in glory in his mind*'. 2 It is 
this which makes Browne's science so 'unscientific', if by 
'scientific' we mean 'chemically pure' from feeling. To 
the same cause, the inter-availability of all his worlds of 
experience, is due the famous (but largely unanalysed) 
quality of 'quaintness' in Browne. As in Mr Eliot's 
celebrated instance of Spinoza and the smell of cooking, 3 
Browne thinks of Gorgons when he is discoursing of 
crystal, and fuses them into a whole. It will be noticed in 
Browne's 'scientific' writings that the impression he con- 
veys of 'feeling' his thought is due to his explanations 
being often fundamentally scholastic. Scholasticism nor- 
mally 'explains' a physical event by describing it in terms 
of imputed human reactions — antipathy, sympathy, fuga 

1 Pseudodoxia Epidemiol, bk. ii. ch. i. (my italics, here and below). 

2 Emerson said this of Thoreau. 

3 Homage to J. Dryden, p. 30. 



SIR THOMAS BROWNE 4£ 

vacui, or the operation of some innate 'quality or 'spirit'. 
Browne wonders 

'whether all Coral were first woody substance and afterwards 
converted ; or rather some thereof were never such, but from the 
sprouting spirit of salt, were able even in their stony natures to 
rami fie and send forth branches.' 1 

His free use of terms such as 'temperamental contrariety', 
'occult form', 'elemental repugnancy', is significant. Mr 
Eliot has rightly pointed out that 'a thought to Donne 
was an experience; it modified his sensibility'; this is 
largely true of Browne as well, and both owe it, I believe, 
to the scholastic tradition, in which 'fact' and 'value' had 
not yet been sundered by the mechanical 'philosophy'. 
On almost every page of Browne one can see how his 
'thought' proceeds pari passu with his 'feeling'; the 
forces of his erudition are constantly mobilised to support 
his emotion. He can introduce, without incongruity, a 
mathematical image into a passage of profound musing: 

'Pyramids, Arches, Obelisks, were but the irregularities of 
vain-glory, and wild enormities of ancient magnanimity. But 
the most magnanimous resolution rests in the Christian Religion, 
which trampleth upon pride and sets on the neck of ambition, 
humbly pursuing that infallible perpetuity, unto which all others 
must diminish their diameters and be poorly seen in Angles of 
contingency.' 2 

Or his emotion can fuse into a strange amalgam (as it 
inevitably seems to modern readers) materials from many 
mental countries — Bible story, Greek legend, Egyptian 
embalming, together with a certain mathematical exact- 
ness of computation : 

'But in this latter Scene of time we cannot expect such Mum- 
mies unto our memories, when ambition may fear the Prophecy 
of Elias, and Charles the fifth can never hope to live within two 
Methusela's of Hector.' 3 

1 Pseud. Epid., bk. ii. ch. v. * Urn Burial, ch. v. 3 ibid. 



4.6 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

The peculiar irony of Browne, his wistfulness, the air of 
compassion with which he ponders all time and all exist- 
ence, proceed from his detachment from each and all 
of the worlds he contemplates; so that he can indulge his 
whim in fitting together what patterns he pleases with 
their fragments. 

'The world that I regard is my self; it is the Microcosm of 
my own frame that I cast mine eye on; for the other (i.e. the 
Macrocosm), / use it but like my Globe, and turn it round some- 
times for my recreation.'' 1 

It is a romantic falsification to 'relish' Browne for his 
'quaintness'. It is more valuable, in reading him, to try 
to recover something of his own inclusiveness, in virtue 
of which his juxtapositions are not quaint, but symbols of 
his complex vision. 

Browne's 'style' is the incarnation of his sensibility, and 
we can trace, I think, even in some of its details, his sense 
of the proximity of the different worlds of thought and 
feeling, and his desire to exploit the resources of them all. 
For instance, there is his trick of the reduplicated phrase, 
of which a few examples may be worth examining (the 
italics are mine): 

'While they lay obscure in the Chaos of -preordination, and 
night of their fore-beings? 2 

''The America and untravelled parts of truth.' 3 

'This funambulatory Track and narrow Path of Goodness.' 
'The Hill and asperous way which leadeth unto the House of 
Sanity.' 4 

'To well manage our Affections and wild Horses of Plato, are 
the highest Circenses.' 5 

'The circinations and spherical rounds of onions.' 6 

'Conscience only, that can see without light, sits in the 

1 Religio Medici, ii. sect. xi. (my italics). 2 Urn Burial, ch. v. end. 

8 Pseud. Epid., ' To the Reader'. * Christian Morals, beginning. 

8 ibid., i. sect. xxiv. 6 Garden of Cyrus, ch. iv. 



SIR THOMAS BROWNE 47 

Areopagy and dark Tribunal of our Hearts, surveying our 
Thoughts and condemning their obliquities.' x 

It is more than likely that Browne was sensitive to the 
Janus-like quality of the English language itself, half 
Latin and half Saxon ; and that in feeling for the most 
significant phrases he was impelled to tap each reservoir 
of meaning in turn. For it will be noticed that in each of 
the italicised pairs a Latin (or Greek) member is balanced 
against a Saxon, or a rarer term against a more homely one. 
Nothing, he seems to feel, has been completely said until 
ithas been given richness and intellectual content by the far- 
sought word, and then 'proved upon our pulses' with the 
simpler one. 2 Sometimes after a passage bristling with 
Latin abstracts, he will suddenly right the balance with a 
concrete image, as in the familiar passage from Urn Burial : 

'We whose generations are ordained in this setting part of time, 
are providentially taken off from such imaginations ; and being 
necessitated to eye the remaining particle of futurity, are natur- 
ally constituted unto thoughts of the next world, and cannot 
excusably decline the consideration of that duration, which 
maketh pyramids pillars of snow, and all that's past a moment.' 

Only an inclusive sensibility like Browne's, to whom the 
world of homely feeling is not remote even while he is 
being learnedly homiletic, could have saved that passage 
from pedantry, and dissolved its massiveness in a kind of 
sweet irony. The peculiar lightning-flicker of Browne is 

1 Christian Morals, iii. sect. xv. 

2 That Browne understood the linguistic situation of his time is indicated by 
the following passage from the foreword to the Pseudodoxia : 'Our first inten- 
tions considering the common interest of Truth, resolved to propose it unto the 
Latine republique and equal Judges of Europe, but owing in the first place this 
service to our Country, and therein especially to its ingenuous Gentry, we have 
declared ourselves in a language best conceived. Although I confess the quality of 
the Subject 'will sometimes carry us into expressions beyond meer English appre- 
hensions. And indeed, if elegancy still proceedeth, and English pens maintain 
that stream, we have of late observed to flow from many ; we shall within few 
years be fain to learn Latine to understand English, and a work will prove of 
equal facility in either.' 



48 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

traceable to this, that just when we think him most 
deeply engaged in one world of thought or feeling, he sur- 
prises us with a proof of his freedom; he remembers 
another (to us far-distant) world, and hangs pensively over 
them both, 'turning them round for his recreation'. 

2 
THE BACONIAN 

In thinking of Browne as a 'metaphysical' we must not 
forget that he had in him a large infusion of the Baconian 
experimentalist. In the Pseudodoxia Epidemica he makes 
as it were an amateur contribution to what I have called 
the main intellectual problem of the seventeenth century, 
the separation of the 'true' from the 'false'. It is true 
that much of the literary attractiveness of this book is due, 
as I have suggested, to its scholastic tincture, and to the 
'marvelling temper' in which Browne so often explodes 
his marvels. Nevertheless its conscious intention, and 
often its real drift, is to clear away the vast deposit of 
pseudo-science and fantastic lore left over from the un- 
scientific centuries. Browne, on this side of him, is an 
ardent modernist (in the seventeenth century sense of the 
term); he believes that a great new advance towards 
truth is being made in his time, and wishes to feel that he 
is in the forefront of the movement. Rather unexpectedly 
it is in Christian Morals that we find one of Browne's most 
enthusiastic salutes to the brave new world. He is 
exhorting his reader to study and to speculate, but to ' fly 
not only upon the wings of Imagination' like the Peri- 
patetics; he must 'joyn Sense unto Reason, and Experi- 
ment unto Speculation', so as not to 'swell the leaves of 
learning by fruitless repetitions'. Then he continues: 

'There is nothing more acceptable unto the ingenious World, 
than this noble Eluctation of Truth j wherein, against the ten- 



SIR THOMAS BROWNE 49 

acity of Prejudice and Prescription, this Century now prevaileth. 
What Libraries of new Volumes aftertimes will behold, and in 
what a new World of Knowledge the eyes of our Posterity may 
be happy, a few Ages may joyfully declare ; and is but a cold 
thought unto those who cannot hope to behold this Exantlation 
of Truth, or that obscured Virgin half out of the Pit.' x 

Just as Descartes strips himself of all but his own 'clear 
and distinct ideas', and proceeds to test reality by those, 
so Browne, in less rigorously logical fashion, will be 
another David of the new age, setting out to meet 'the 
Goliath and Giant of Authority', armed only with 'con- 
temptible pibbles' drawn from the 'scrip and slender 
stock' of himself. 2 For Browne's appeal is not only to 
the Baconian experimental test, though he applies this 
constantly, he has also an Ithuriel's spear with which he 
sometimes directly probes a vulgar error. Is this belief, 
he asks, consonant with reason and sound sense? And by 
that he means, is it consistent with what by now has come 
to seem the nature of things, with what we feel we know 
of the way things hang together? As I have hinted above, 
what then seemed 'truest' about the nature of things was 
that God worked in nature only by second causes, that is, 
that throughout the universe we must expect to meet 
nothing but order, uniformity and strict (and probably 
mechanical) causation. Our tendency to ascribe a natural 
event to a supernatural cause is with Browne one of the 
temptations of Satan, luring us away from genuine know- 
ledge. Doubtless scholasticism admitted the universality 
of second causes in nature, but the language with which 
it had described them was coming to seem 'super- 
naturalist', now that 'affinities', 'antipathies', 'substantial 
forms', and the like were being 'explained' in mechanical 
terms. It was not so much to establish the principle of 
strict causation that Bacon and Browne were working, as 

1 ii. sect. v. 2 Foreword to Pseud. Epid. 



50 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

to drive home its truth upon their readers' imagination, to 
compel more of their generation to feel it as fact. For at 
that time, just as many sincere Christians believed in the 
existence of a 'supernatural' which was certainly not the 
official supernature of religion, so many could be well- 
versed in Aristotle, and the schoolmen, and yet believe in 
magic. Browne himself, as we have seen, sometimes uses 
highly 'unscientific' language, yet he is a firm believer in 
what he calls 'the settled and determined order of the 
world V and it is this, the fundamental principle of science, 
that most of his enquiries are supposed to illustrate. 

'To behold a Rainbow in the night, is no prodigy unto a 
Philosopher. Than Eclipses of the Sun or Moon, nothing is 
more natural. Yet with what superstition they have been be- 
held since the Tragedy of Nicias and his Army, many examples 
declare.' ? 

It is God that we shall meet in Nature, not Satan; that is 
to say, we shall everywhere encounter law, not arbitrary 
mystery or capricious exertions of power. For God keeps 
his own laws, or only breaks them on extraordinary 
occasions. 

'There is no liberty for causes to operate in a loose and strag- 
gling way; nor any effect whatsoever, but hath its warrant from 
some universal or superiour Cause . . . even in sortileges and 
matters of greatest uncertainty, there is a settled and pre-ordered 
course of effects.' 3 

Browne is as eager as Bacon to rescue Nature and natural 
science from their traditional association with witchcraft 
and sorcery. Not that he disbelieves in witchcraft; on 
the contrary, he even admits that 'at first a great part of 
Philosophy was Witchcraft'. The secrets once extorted 
from the devil, at the price of their souls, by self-sacri- 

1 Pseud. Epid., bk. i. ch. xi. end. 

2 ibid., bk. i. ch. xi. 

3 Rel. Med., i. sect, xviii. 



SIR THOMAS BROWNE 5 1 

ficing sorcerers, have now 'proved but Philosophy', and 
'no more than the honest effects of Nature: what, in- 
vented by us, is Philosophy, learned from him [i.e. 
Satan] is Magick'. 1 What Satan taught the magicians 
was after all only 'the principles of Nature', the important 
thing is that we now should learn these from Nature itself 
and not from him. Browne joins with Bacon in scouting 
the notion that there is risk of damnation in exploring the 
secrets of Nature : 

'There is no danger to profound these mysteries, no sanctum 
sanctorum in Philosophy. The World was made to be inhabited 
by Beasts, but studied and contemplated by Man : 'tis the Debt 
of our Reason we owe unto God, and the homage we pay for not 
being Beasts. . . . The Wisdom of God receives small honour 
from those vulgar Heads that rudely stare about, and with a gross 
rusticity admire His works: those highly magnifie Him, whose 
judicious inquiry into His Acts, and deliberate research into His 
Creatures, return the duty of a devout and learned admiration.' 2 

'Nature is the Art of God'; and Browne uses the 
Baconian technique again in also calling Nature a 
Scripture : 

'There are two Books from whence I collect my Divinity, 
besides that written one of God, another of His servant Nature, 
that universal and publick Manuscript, that lies expans'd unto 
the Eyes of all : those that never saw Him in the one, have dis- 
covered Him in the other. This was the Scripture and Theology 
of the Heathens:' 

and Browne even has the courage to commend the 
heathens for 

'knowing better how to joyn and read these mystical Letters than 
we Christians, who cast a more careless Eye on these common 
Hieroglyphicks, and disdain to suck Divinity from the flowers of 
Nature.'' 3 

1 Rel. Med., i. sect. xxxi. 2 ibid., i. sect. xiii. 

3 ibid., i. sect. xvi. 



52 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

Nearly two hundred years after Browne, Wordsworth 

exclaimed : 

'Great God! I'd rather be 
A pagan, suckled in a creed outworn; 
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea 
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;' 

and only yesterday Lawrence was telling us that the 
human race is 'like a great up-rooted tree, with its roots 
in the air. We must plant ourselves again in the uni- 
verse'. 1 It is significant to reflect that Wordsworth and 
Lawrence were making their protest against some of the 
effects of the very science which Browne was trying to 
vindicate. Browne wanted to plant us in the uni- 
verse so that we might have science ; Wordsworth and 
Lawrence, that we might forget it. 

Browne's account of the sources of the Common Errors 
is to some extent parallel to Bacon's Confutation of Idols. 
Corresponding to the Idols of the Tribe, though different 
in so far as Browne means rather a moral than an intel- 
lectual defect, is the imperfection of our fallen nature, 
whereby we are radically prone to err. The second source 
is in the 'erroneous disposition of the people', the 'demo- 
cratical enemies of truth', and corresponds roughly to 
Bacon's Idols of the Market. We must not be surprised 
to find the tolerant and charitable Browne exclaiming 
upon 'that great enemy of reason, virtue, and religion, 
the Multitude'. The culture of the Renaissance was 
essentially aristocratic, and Browne wishes to preserve it 
from the contamination of the vulgar, who are taken in by 
'saltimbancoes', 'quacksalvers', and charlatans of every 
description. Browne was neither the first nor the last 
champion of sweetness and light who has disliked the 
■projanum vulgus. 

The third class of errors is of the opposite kind, and 

1 Apropos of Lady Chatterleys Lo<ver, p. 52. 



SIR THOMAS BROWNE 53 

may be connected with Bacon's Idols of the Theatre. 
These are the errors or distempers to which learned men 
are prone. As would be expected, it is at this point that 
Browne affirms his own 'rejection of scholasticism', and 
associates himself with the Moderns against the Ancients. 
He notes a number of logical errors, and censures the 
credulity of the erudite, and their 'supinity', which con- 
sists either in 'rather believing than going to see' or in 
'rather doubting with ease and gratis than believing with 
difficulty and purchase'. But if there are some who have 
failed through 'supinity', there are others, he observes, 
'who have sweat to little purpose, and rolled the stone in 
vain ' ; and with such, he adds, our Universities are often 
filled. 1 But the chief error in this division is slavish adher- 
ence to antiquity, and especially to Aristotle. We dis- 
honour that pioneer by failing to carry forward the work 
so auspiciously begun by him. 'Ancient knowledge was 
imperfect in many things, and we have enlarged the 
bounds of knowledge beyond their conception'. We 
must emancipate ourselves from 'testimonial engage- 
ments', and 'erect upon the surer base of reason'. 2 In its 
effort to throw off authority, the seventeenth century dis- 
covered, in each sphere of interest, an Ancient still older 
than the Ancients; in theology, the Ancient of Days, in 
science, Nature herself; in ethics, and in literary theory, 
'nature and reason'. Browne gives us the names of the 
main authorities from whom most of the pseudodoxies 
of his day proceeded — Herodotus, Ctesias, Pliny the 
Younger, Claudius Aelianus, Basil and Ambrose, Al- 
bertus Magnus, Cardan, and many more — and it is to 
the exposure of the errors derived from such as these that 
most of the book is devoted. Browne deplores that so 

1 Pseud. Epid., bk. i. ch. v. ' And this is one reason why, though Universities 
be full of men, they are oftentimes empty of learning.' Cf. Bacon's censure 
of the Universities. 

2 ibid., bk. i. ch. vii. 



54 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

many of the moderns think that to follow nature is to 
follow them, and that when they have a treatise to com- 
pose, instead of studying their subject experimentally, 
they 'promiscuously amass all that makes for their sub- 
ject' and then 'break forth at last in trite and fruitless 
Rhapsodies'. 1 

But Truth has another and still more powerful enemy. 
Besides all these sources of error in the general infirmity of 
human nature, there is the ubiquitous Satan, whose activi- 
ties are so widespread that Browne, in enumerating them, 
seems almost to fall into that manichaean heresy which, he 
says, is one of Satan's own deceits. In spite of his 
Baconian enthusiasms, and his trust in the settled and 
determined order of nature, Browne was far indeed from 
conceiving the world as the Great Machine. He would 
not be so representative of his Janus-age were it otherwise. 
Behind the gauze curtain of science the old supernatural 
drama was still proceeding as before. Browne's Satan is 
very unlike the kind of domestic demon or poltergeist who 
pestered Luther or Bunyan; he is akin to Milton's in the 
breadth of his views and the scope of his strategy. As the 
century wore on there was certainly a remarkable waning 
in Satan's prestige; Nature had been rescued from him, 
and human nature was following suit as quickly as might 
be. The gradual evaporation in the later years of the 
century of the belief in witchcraft — that commonest of all 
the modes of Satanic interference with human affairs — 
bears witness to the final triumph of the new philosophy. 
But during the greater part of the century Satan remained 
the most living figure in the current mythology. 'God' 
had been rationalised through centuries of theology, and 
was now receding still further into the inconceivable as the 
frontiers of natural causation were pushed back and back. 
But Satan, symbol of how much ! of the endless indigna- 

1 Pseud. Eptd., bk. i. ch. viii. 



SIR THOMAS BROWNE £5 

tionof the subconscious against the mind-forged manacles, 
of fear, and pride, and rebelliousness — Satan was still far 
more than an allegory which could be explained in con- 
ceptual language. The century was in fetters when it 
wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty, when of Devils 
and Hell. 1 When 'God' becomes a scientific hypothesis, 
almost identifiable with absolute space, 2 it is not surprising 
that the religious consciousness should express itself 
through 'Satan'. It is probably for this reason that those 
who, as the scientific philosophy strengthened its hold, 
adhered tenaciously to a supernatural world-view, felt that 
they must cling to Satan in order to keep God. The idea 
that to abandon belief in witches was to begin on the 
slippery slope to atheism was a common one at this time. 
It is seen well developed in Glanvill's Sadducismus Tri- 
umphatus, and survives in the eighteenth century in 
Wesley. Browne's views on witchcraft are well known, 
and may be best read in the Religio Medici: 

'For my part I have ever believed, and do now know, that 
there are Witches : they that doubt of these, do not only deny 
them, but Spirits; and are obliquely and upon consequence a 
sort not of Infidels, but Atheists.' 3 

But Browne, like Glanvill, has felt the change in the 
'climate of opinion' which showed itself in an increasing 
scepticism about the devil and his witches. Accordingly 
he adopts a device highly characteristic of him and of his 
time: the subtlestof all Satan's stratagems, he tells us, is to 
■pretend his own non-existence in general ; and in particular 
the non-existence of Witches. 4 Not only is it to Satan 
that we owe the disposition not to believe in Satan, but 
Browne can even ascribe to him all the superstitious and 
unscientific learning, the vain pseudo-science, which attri- 
butes natural phenomena to supernatural causes. Browne 

1 Blake, Marriage of Heaven and Hell. 2 See pp. 167 and 280 below. 

3 i. sect. xxx. Pseud. Epid., bk. i. ch. x. 



56 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

described himself accurately when he wrote 'in Philo- 
sophy, where Truth seems double-faced, there is no man 
more Paradoxical than myself'. 1 For Browne will have 
it both ways: Satan is accountable both for our scepticism 
and our credulity. 

Browne's description of Satan's other activities follows 
more usual lines. Amongst the errors which the devil 
tries to disseminate are, for instance, that there is no God, 
or at least no Providence; that God 'looks not below the 
Moon', or that all things hang on Fate, Destiny, Neces- 
sity, and so forth. Or, alternatively, that there are many 
Gods. He also pretends to be God, as in the Oracles, and 
other assumed attributes of Deity. But of the remaining 
Satanic deceits the most interesting are those referring to 
the interpretation of Scripture, and this is the topic of the 
following Chapter. 

1 Re I. Med., i. sect. vi. 



CHAPTER IV 



On Scriptural Interpretation 



THE question of scriptural interpretation was 
bound to be a vital one for many seventeenth 
century English writers, since they were not only 
Protestants, and therefore committed to the authority of 
holy writ, but beginning to be 'philosophic' as well, and 
therefore eager for 'the truth'. How to fit a super- 
naturalist and poetic scripture into the new world-scheme, 
how to reconcile Jehovah with the ontologically-certified 
Dieu of Descartes, and the whole miraculous structure of 
Christianity with the new 'philosophical' principles, this 
was a major problem confronting the critical intelligence 
of the age. The difficulty of writing Paradise Lost in the 
seventeenth century was even greater than is generally 
supposed. 1 

Browne attributes to Satan all the errors and misgivings 
about Scripture which prevailed in his time, and of which 
he personally had had his full share. ' More of these no 
man hath known than myself, which I confess I con- 
quered, not in a martial posture, but on my knees.' 
Amongst these are such questions as, How did the crea- 
tures from the Ark, starting as they did from Mount 
Ararat, get disseminated over all the countries of the 
world, in spite of the estranging seas? Gold does not 
turn to powder under high temperatures, so how can 
Moses have calcined the Golden Calf? Manna is an 
actual plant, flourishing in Calabria and formerly gathered 
in Arabia; 'where then was the miracle in the days of 
Moses?' Similarly, there is such a thing as 'Secret Sym- 

1 Cf. pp. 219 ff. below. 

57 



58 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

pathy'j and may not the Brazen Serpent of Moses have 
healed the people thus, without a miracle? and might 
not Elijah have kindled the fire on God's altar by means 
of naphtha — 'for that inflammable substance yields not 
easily unto Water, but flames in the Arms of its Antagon- 
ist ' ? In this manner Satan ' takes a hint of Infidelity from 
our Studies, and by demonstrating a naturality in one 
way, makes us mistrust a miracle in another'. 

'Thus the Devil played at Chess with me, and yielding a 
Pawn, thought to gain a Queen of me, taking advantage of my 
honest endeavours ; and whilst I laboured to raise the structure 
of my Reason, he strived to undermine the edifice of my Faith.' * 

Browne has more than one way of meeting these diffi- 
culties. One is the Baconian method of assigning Scripture 
to the region of Faith, and so rendering it immune from the 
questionings of Reason. 'It is no vulgar part of Faith,' 
he says, ' to believe a thing not only above but contrary to 
Reason, and against the arguments of our proper senses'. 2 

'To believe only possibilities is not Faith, but meer Philo- 
sophy. Many things are true in Divinity, which are neither in- 
ducible by reason, nor confirmable by sense.' 3 

In 'Philosophy', as we have seen, Browne delighted to be 
'paradoxical', but in 'Divinity' he loved to 'keep the 
Road; and though not in an implicite, yet an humble 
faith, follow the great wheel of the Church'. 4 To classify 
every scriptural statement as 'divinity' and to rebut all 
critical questionings as temptations of Satan was indeed a 
short way with biblical problems. Browne is not afraid of 
stating the extreme position: 

'I can answer all the Objections of Satan and my rebellious 
reason with that odd resolution I learned of Tertullian, certum 
est quia impossibile estS 5 

1 Rel. Med., i. sect. xix. ff. 2 ibid., i. sect. x. 

ibid., i. sect, xlviii. 4 ibid., i. sect. vi. 5 ibid., i. sect. ix. 



ON SCRIPTURAL INTERPRETATION 59 

It was one of the privileges of the seventeenth century 
to be able to believe, without any effort or striving, that 
'truth' was not all of one order. It would be more 
accurate to say that this was unconsciously assumed, or 
felt, rather than consciously 'believed'. Thus however 
eager one might be for the 'exantlation' of one kind of 
truth, the new kind, the old order of numinous truth was 
still secure in its inviolate separateness. The feeling that 
there was a divine meaning, an otherness, in the universe, 
as well as a mechanical order, was still natural and inevi- 
table; it had not, as so often since, to be deliberately 
worked up or simulated. At the same time one could of 
course be more interested in one order or the other. 
Bacon, as we have seen, desired their separation chiefly 
for the sake of science. As for Browne, it is difficult to 
say which he valued most; indeed it is precisely the 
capacity for living in both worlds that distinguishes him. 
But when he is actually speaking of the separation of the 
worlds, it is nearly always for religion that he is pleading. 
He had — what Bacon probably had in much smaller 
measure, and Hobbes and most succeeding 'philosophers' 
of the enlightenment lacked — a positive gout for the 
numinous. To lose himself in an altitudo ! was an ex- 
perience he highly valued; he loved 'to teach his haggard 
and unreclaimed reason to stoop unto the lure of faith'. 
And Scripture (to return to our immediate point) was a 
numinous book, and horror must be felt towards any 
attempt to apply to it the usual scientific tests. The part 
that the Bible has played, as a storehouse of numinous 
values, has of course been immense. Since the scientific 
movement began, and numinous experience has become 
less and less accessible, Scripture and the liturgies have 
preserved a range of experiences which have been increas- 
ingly threatened by modernity in its various manifesta- 
tions, and might have been altogether lost. Perhaps it is 



60 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

a sense of the importance of these experiences that is ex- 
pressing itself when the Bible is reverenced as 'holy', and 
when reluctance is shown to 'revising' or 'modernising' 
the Prayer Book. At all costs (so the plea might run) let 
us not cut the last thread that links us with a lost world of 
feeling. 

But it would be quite a mistake to suppose that the 
'holiness' of the Bible meant anything like this in the 
seventeenth century. For us, let us say, its 'holiness' 
means first, that it contains, together with a mass of his- 
torical material, certain records of religious experience. 
These, like other such records, are capable of reproducing 
some degree of the religious experience in us, not by 
reasoning, but by communication, as in poetry. The 
Bible is holy, then, in so far as it is an aid to religious ex- 
perience. Secondly, its efficacy in this kind is reinforced 
by the feelings traditionally associated with it; it evokes, 
in fact, a 'stock response' of a special kind. And those 
who wish now to conserve this holiness believe that the 
aid to religious experience, and even the stock response, 
are more than ever valuable in the modern world. We 
may perhaps argue that already in the seventeenth cen- 
tury its unconscious meaning was beginning to be some- 
thing like this. But its conscious meaning was very 
different. The Scripture, that is, the whole contents of 
the biblical canon, belonged to Divinity, not to Philo- 
sophy; its Truth was truth of faith, not truth of fact. 
But further (and this is what more especially differenti- 
ates that century from ours), every statement in Scrip- 
ture, whether narrative, psalm, prophecy, parable, vision 
or exhortation, had a 'spiritual' meaning; that is to say, 
it was pointing, through its literal 'sense', to a 'Truth' 
beyond sense. This must necessarily be so for two com- 
plementary reasons : first, because Scripture was divinely 
inspired, 'given', and secondly, because so much of 



ON SCRIPTURAL INTERPRETATION 6 1 

Scripture could only be regarded as 'divine' if it had a. 
multiple meaning. We are thus brought face to face 
with the main crux of scriptural interpretation from the 
earliest down to quite recent times. The position may be 
expressed thus: you begin with a preconception about 
the divine inspiration of Scripture; you immediately find 
that a great part of Scripture does not fit your preconcep- 
tion ; therefore you conclude, the words must mean some- 
thing other than they say. As St Augustine puts it : 

'Quidquid in sermone divino neque ad morum honestatem 
neque ad fidei veritatem proprie referri potest figuratum esse 
cognoscas.' x 



The allegorical method of interpreting Scripture, as 
this quotation will suggest, had already had a long and 
illustrious history before our period. It first arose (as far 
as the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures are concerned) 
out of the conjunction of Judaism with Hellenism in 
Alexandria. The Alexandrian culture of the first and 
second centuries a.d. is indeed in some ways parallel to 
that of seventeenth century Europe. In both 'philosophy ' 
and 'religion' confronted each other; and in both, efforts 
were made to harmonise them, to be philosophical while 
remaining faithful to the letter of Scripture. The name 
of Philo Judaeus (c. 20 b.c. to c. a.d. 45) is usually associ- 
ated with the early use of the allegorical method. It was 
natural that this should originate with an Alexandrian 
Jew, for, after all, the Western reverence for 'scriptures' 
is of Hebrew derivation, and Philo, being an Alexandrian, 
was also a Hellenist. The Jewish Rabbis had, of course, 
already evolved a vast apparatus of scriptural interpreta- 

1 ' Whatsoever in holy writ cannot be properly said to be concerned either 
with morality or with the faith must be recognised as allegorical.' Quoted 
by Farrar, History of Scriptural Interpretation (1886), p. 237, to which I am 
indebted for the references in the ensuing paragraphs. 



62 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

tion, but for them 'the Pentateuch was the germ of all 
ritualism', whereas 'to the Hellenists it was the veil of 
all gnosis'. 1 The crossing of Hebraic scripturalism with 
Platonic and neo-Platonic speculation produced the alle- 
gorical interpretation. 2 I think it may also be said that 
philosophic 'realism', either Platonic or Christian, is 
usually present by implication in most Western alle- 
gorical writings; for it is of the essence of allegory to 
assume that the most real thing, that which is to be demon- 
strated, illustrated, or inculcated, is something abstract, 
while the image, the personification, is created for the 
sake of the abstraction, and points only thither. Now, the 
assumption behind the interpretations of the scriptural 
allegorists is, not only that the structure of the universe is 
neo-Platonic, but that God himself allegorises. He can- 
not create a stone without a sermon in it; in His own 
words, then, how manifold must be the depths of mean- 
ing ! Thus, according to Philo, it would be a sign of great 
simplicity to suppose, after reading Genesis, that the 
world was 'really' created in six days, or in 'time' at all. 
To take literally the words 'God planted a Paradise in 
Eden' is impiety; 'let not such fabulous nonsense ever 
enter our minds'. The true meaning is, that God im- 
plants terrestrial virtue in the human race. In the biblical 
description of the Promised Land, says Philo, 'cities* 
mean general virtues, 'wells' mean noble dispositions 
towards wisdom, 'vineyards and olive-trees', cheerfulness 
and light, or the products of a contemplative life. The 
'five cities of the plain' are the five senses. All the Old 
Testament characters are personifications. The sacred 

1 Farrar, op. cit., p. 131. 

2 It is noteworthy that Homer, whose status amongst the Greeks bore some 
analogy to that of Scripture amongst the Jews, had already been subjected to 
allegorical interpretation by, e.g., Theagenes, Metrodorus, Stesimbrotus, 
Glaucon, and the early Stoics. Philo merely applied their methods to Scripture. 
Cf. Farrar, op. cit., pp. 131 ff. 



ON SCRIPTURAL INTERPRETATION 6% 

books were written by persons in a state of ecstasy, during 
which all their human powers were exploited by the divine 
afflatus. If, at first, we are inclined to applaud Philo for 
some of his rationalisations, we must remember that his 
'enlightenment' is purchased dearly, at the price of believ- 
ing that God intends the abstract meaning which is alleged 
to underlie the literal sense. In practice, as can be seen 
from some of the quoted examples, the result was that 
almost any 'interpretation', however wildly fantastic, 
could be confidently recommended as the 'real' meaning 
of any passage. One may welcome Philo's emancipation 
from the bonds of 'literalism', but his enslavement to the 
belief in allegorical intention involves him in such distor- 
tions of historical narrative that it is doubtful which 
'error' is the worse. To the modern mind it is, of course, 
just the complete absence of all historical sense that is so 
remarkable in early biblical criticism. The whole of 
Scripture is treated as homogeneous, and any passage 
can be connected with any other for the extraction of 
further meanings. 1 

Just as the Alexandrian Jews had allegorised the Old 
Testament, so the Apostolic Fathers, before the full for- 
mation of the New Testament Canon, allegorised it in 
order to make it a witness for Christian truth. The 
Gnostics, furthermore, dissolved into abstractions all the 
'positive truths of historical Christianity', and this pro- 
voked the 'literalist' or 'realistic' reaction of Irenaeus and 
Tertullian. Dean Farrar's comment on the 'odd paradox' 
which Browne learned from Tertullian reveals the gulf 
between the seventeenth century and the nineteenth, or at 
any rate between the theology of a seventeenth century 
savant and that of a Victorian liberal divine. The views of 

1 For instance, the belief, current in Browne's time, that the world was to last 
six thousand years, was ' proved ' by the author of the Epistle to Barnabas, by 
the Six Days of Genesis, coupled with the phrase in the Psalm : ' one day with 
the Lord is as a thousand years '. 



64 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

Browne, and of Bacon, about the 'absurd' or 'impossible' 
in matters of faith will be remembered. 1 Dean Farrar 
is horrified at this attitude. Tertullian, says he, 'adopted 
the paradox credo quia absurdum est, and the wild con- 
clusion that the more repugnant to sound reason a state- 
ment was, it ought so much the more to be deemed 
worthy of God '. 2 Alas, we are not quite so sure as Farrar 
(or Matthew Arnold) that we know what 'sound reason' 
is, or what the limits of its truth-value may be ; neither do 
we feel so certain as to what precisely is 'worthy of God'. 
Of what God? Yahweh, the, First Person of the Trinity, 
the Supreme Being, the Absolute, Quetzalcoatl ? What 
is unworthy of a God who is Sound Reason deified, may 
not unfitly represent the God who created Behemoth, 
Leviathan, and the spiral nebulae ; the God who is, in 
Pascal's phrase, Deus absconditus. 

While Tertullian blames the Gnostics for their use of 
allegory, and repudiates all attempts to philosophise the 
faith (though using allegory himself when he so desires), 
the Alexandrian Fathers anticipated the effort of the Cam- 
bridge Platonists to unite revelation with a platonic philo- 
sophy. For Tertullian, as for all since who have dwelt 
upon the otherness of God, philosophy was suspect; for 
Clement and Origen, it was of divine origin. Accord- 
ingly, for Clement all Scripture is allegorical, even the 
Decalogue. The New Testament miracles he treats as if 
they were parables. 3 He does not deny the literal sense, 
but considers that this is not for the philosophic Chris- 
tian. It was Origen, however, who formulated the famous 
'threefold sense' of Scripture — which later became the 
'fourfold sense' 4 of the Scholastics (and of Dante) — 
the literal, the moral and the mystical. The division 
corresponded to Plato's tripartite division of Man, into 

1 See above, pp. 29 and 58. 2 op. cit., p. 180. 

3 op. cit., p. 182. * See below, p. 66. 



ON SCRIPTURAL INTERPRETATION 6$ 

body, soul and spirit, 1 and as might therefore be supposed, 
the 'literal' was for him the least of all the meanings. 
One appreciates the insight of these cultivated and philo- 
sophic theologians, and prefers their view, in many ways, 
to the narrow protestantism of a Tertullian. The theory 
of multiple senses was also, in itself, a remarkable first step 
towards the science of meaning which we are still desider- 
ating at the present day. And yet all the wisdom of the 
allegorists is vitiated by two assumptions, first, that 
'Scripture' is homogeneous throughout; and secondly, 
that this homogeneous Scripture is deliberately intended, 
either by its 'inspired' writers or by God himself, as a 
figurative expression of spiritual truths. It is hard to say 
which is the more misleading — the 'fundamentalist' read- 
ing which mistakes mythology for history, or the Alex- 
andrian, which sees allegory where none was intended. 
In both there is a lack of capacity to distinguish between 
what is 'statement' and what is emotive speech, a defi- 
ciency which not only affected scriptural interpretation, 
but rendered impossible any -satisfactory theory of poetry 
or the imagination for very many centuries. It is prob- 
able that literalism, through its greater closeness to the 
intention of the authors, may have caused less distortion 
than allegorism, with its excessively intellectual presup- 
positions. Some such feeling was certainly present in the 
mind of Luther, who, in rejecting the fourfold sense, pro- 
claimed a return to 'unum simplicem, germanum et certum 
sensum liter alern ? 

The Rabbinic and Alexandrian doctrine of a multiplex 
sensus in every verse of Scripture prevailed throughout the 
'dark' and middle ages. Augustine, for example, tells us 
that Eden can be understood in a spiritual sense; that its 

1 And apparently he based it also on a (mistranslated) passage in the Septua- 
gint and Vulgate: ' Ecce descripsi tibi tripliciter' (Prov. xxii. 20), which he 
characteristically applies to the whole Bible. 

2 Farrar, op. cit., p. 327. 
v 



66 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

four rivers may be taken to signify the cardinal virtues, or 
even the four gospels. He adds, however, that these 
interpretations are quite consistent with belief in the 
strict truth of the history. His general rule (which I have 
quoted above) is that whatever in Scripture is not directly 
profitable or edifying must be figurative. The character- 
istic mediaeval doctrine of the quadruple sense, familiar 
to students of St Thomas and of Dante, is summed up in 
an epigram attributed to Nicholas of Lyra (d. 1340): 

' Littera gesta docet, quae credas Jllegoria, 
Moralis quid agas, quo tendas Anagogia.'' 1 

It is well known that Dante intended his Divina Commedia 
to carry the same fourfold meaning which he attributed to 
Scripture. Dante may thus be said to be the only great 
poet to whom the method of fourfold interpretation both 
may and must be applied. The view, common in the 
seventeenth century, that much of Scripture is 'language 
of accommodation ', is also clearly stated by him in the 
Paradiso — the divine mysteries surmount the reach of 
human understanding, 'and therefore doth the Scripture 
condescend to your capacity, assigning foot and hand to 
God', etc. 2 

Two other points must be indicated before we return 
to the seventeenth century. The first is that a tendency 
had already shown itself, in certain mediaeval mystics, to 
emphasise a moral rather than a metaphysical approach to 
'truth'. From Hugo of St Victor (d. 1 141) we have the 
saying : ' Tantum de veritate quisque potest videre, quantum 
ipse est' ; and from Richard of St Victor (d. 1 173): 'In 
tantum Deus cognoscitur in quantum amatur\ The attitude 
here implied is an obvious corrective to excessive intel- 
lectualism in any form, and has bearings on issues wider 
than those of scriptural interpretation. The other point 

1 op. cit., p. 277. 2 Cf. Paradiso, iv. 43. 



ON SCRIPTURAL INTERPRETATION 67 

is that at the time of the Renaissance scholars and critics 
had begun to apply historical analysis to the text of Scrip- 
ture, and to distinguish between its various ingredients. 
Erasmus produced the first critical edition of the Greek 
Testament (15 16), and is reckoned the chief founder of 
textual criticism. Luther and Hooker may both be 
credited with the capacity to discriminate between the 
different portions of the Bible, and both believed that the 
'Word of God' was contained in it, rather than present in 
its every syllable. Much of Hooker's Ecclesiastical Polity 
is devoted to showing that although the Bible contained 
what was necessary for salvation, all that it contained was 
not necessary. God had only revealed in it what was un- 
discoverable by the light of Reason ; the rest he had left 
to our discretion. He had not, for example, prescribed 
one fixed form of government for the Church, and that the 
Presbyterian, as Hooker's Calvinist opponents were then 
asserting. The ritual and ceremonial injunctions of the 
Old Testament were relevant only to the time and place 
for which they were originally intended. 



Browne's reactions to Scripture are as manifold as his 
character, and reflect most of the attitudes to be found 
in his century. As we have seen, when he is in the mood 
to pursue his reason to an altitudo^ he feels that 'there be 
not impossibilities enough in Religion for an active faith*. 
But there are occasions when he does not see fit to force 
his haggard and unreclaimed reason to stoop unto the lure 
of faith, and these arise when scriptural statements con- 
flict with scientific truths which he cannot surrender. At 
such times he falls back in the usual way upon allegorical 
interpretation, and the theory of 'language of accommoda- 
tion'. For instance, he allows himself to wonder whether 



68 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

the first chapters of Genesis are not an allegory illustrating 
the seduction of Reason by the Passions: 

'though Divines have to the power of humane reason en- 
deavoured to make all go in a literal meaning, yet those alle- 
gorical interpretations are also probable, and perhaps the mystical 
method of Moses bred up in the Hieroglyphical Schools of the 
Egyptians.' x 

The Scripture speaks of the sun and the moon as the two 
great lights of heaven, but Browne hopes he 'shall not 
offend Divinity' if he denies that the moon is therefore the 
second largest heavenly body, and adheres rather to 'the 
demonstration of Ptolemy than the popular description of 
Moses'. The Book of Chronicles describes Solomon 
making a circle of which the diameter was to the circum- 
ference as 7 to 21, whereas Archimedes has demonstrated 
that the true proportions are 7 to nearly 22. Here too, 
Browne will 'adhere unto Archimedes who speaketh 
exactly, rather than the sacred Text which speaketh 
largely'. 2 In fact, Divinity may and often does make use 
of ' language of accommodation ', whereas Philosophy re- 
quires 'strict and definitive expressions'. The Scriptures, 
in a word, were written to be understood by all men, and 
so often use popular rather than scientific and technical 
descriptions. Browne cannot think that God took six days 
to create the world; the six days must rather symbolise 
the conception of the work in the mind of God. Neither 
can he think that at the Last Day there will be any actual 
judicial proceeding, or calling to the bar, as Scripture 
implies, and the literalists believe. 

'For unspeakable mysteries in the Scriptures are often de- 
livered in a vulgar and illustrative way; and being written unto 
man, are delivered, not as they truly are, but as they may be 
understood; wherein, notwithstanding, the different interpre- 

1 Rel. Med., i. sect, xxxiv. 2 Pseud. Epid., bk. i. ch. ix. 



ON SCRIPTURAL INTERPRETATION 69 

tations according to different capacities may stand firm with our 
devotion, nor be any way prejudicial to each single edification.' * 

This causes Browne no uneasiness so long as it is 'un- 
speakable mysteries' that are being delivered. The 
trouble arises when Scripture appears to state incorrectly 
what science was demonstrating to be neither mysterious 
nor unspeakable. It is clear that Browne shared Bacon's 
anxiety that Scripture should not be allowed to be an 
obstacle to science. And it is significant of the times that 
Browne should not only feel Scripture as a potential 
obstacle, but should couple it as such with poetry. 

4 
MILTON AND SCRIPTURAL INTERPRETATION 

The fuller discussion of Milton's thought must be 
deferred to a later section, 2 but it may be convenient, for 
purposes of comparison, to indicate here his attitude to 
Scripture. The very existence and nature of his De Doctrina 
Christiana serves to show that however boldly Milton may 
have re-interpreted Scripture for himself, its authority for 
him, as indeed for almost every seventeenth century 
English writer, was axiomatic. So great a labour of colla- 
tion and compilation could have proceeded from no other 
source than reverence for a book of unique holiness, and a 
conviction that it must be 'searched' unweariedly by the 
intelligent believer. It cannot be denied that in assem- 
bling what seem to him relevant texts under each heading 
Milton has often treated the Bible in the old uncritical 
way as if it were of one homogeneous texture throughout 
That Milton should have felt it necessary to undertake 
such a heavy task, in order to free his mind from the mis- 
interpretations of others, illustrates forcibly what a burden 

1 Rel. Med., i. sect. xlv. a See below, pp. 219 ff. 



JO THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

was laid upon the conscience of Protestants by the doctrine 
of biblical inspiration and authority. 

Two questions especially concern us at this point: 
What kind or kinds of Truth did Milton find in Scrip- 
ture? and, Did he ever, like others of his century, feel 
Scripture to be an obstacle to anything which he highly 
valued? First, then, Milton believed, with Browne and 
the allegorists generally, that in Scripture truth was often 
conveyed figuratively. He knew quite well that the 
Absolute which his intelligence acknowledged could not 
be equated with Jehovah, or with the ' School Divine ' of 
his own Paradise Lost. But by means of the 'language of 
accommodation' theory, and the neo-Platonic doctrine 
that earthly things correspond shadow-wise to their 
heavenly patterns, he is able to overcome both the scrip- 
tural difficulty, and one of the main intellectual diffi- 
culties of his own great poem. Speaking of God, in the 
second chapter of the De Doctrina Christiana, he says : 

'Our safest way is to form in our minds such a conception of 
God as shall correspond with his own delineation and represen- 
tation of himself in the sacred writings. For granting that both 
in the literal and figurative descriptions of God, he is exhibited 
not as he really is, but in such a manner as may be within the 
scope of our comprehension, yet we ought to entertain such a 
conception of him, as he, in condescending to accommodate him- 
self to our capacities, has shown that he desires we should con- 
ceive. . . .' 

For instance, if the text says that 'it repented Jehovah that 
he had made man', 

'let us believe that it did really repent him, only taking care to 
remember that what is called repentance when applied to God 
does not arise from inadvertency, as in men'. 

And the theory underlying the supernatural portions of 
Paradise Lost, it will be recalled, is summarised by 
Raphael in one of his speeches to Adam : 



ON SCRIPTURAL INTERPRETATION 7 1 

'What surmounts the reach 
Of human sense, I shall delineate so, 
By lik'ning spiritual to corporal forms 
As may express them best; though what if Earth 
Be but the shadow of Heaven, and things therein 
Each to other like, more than on earth is thought?' 2 

Secondly, if Milton ever felt Scripture as an obstacle, it 
was not, as with Bacon or Browne, as an obstacle to scien- 
tific truth. This, though he admired Galileo, was never 
the prime object of his search. 2 What he sought above all 
was for moral guidance ; the truth he valued was the truth 
that makes us free — free from the bondage to sin and to 
external tyrannies. Scripture itself could be a hindrance 
if it were allowed to tyrannise over the free choice of a 
responsible moral agent. And so Milton argues that the 
moral sense, which is the law of God written upon the 
heart, is the final tribunal — superior even to Scripture 
itself. Through that, the Spirit which inspired the sacred 
writers speaks, here and now, to the individual believer. 
We possess, he says, a twofold Scripture: not, signifi- 
cantly, the twofold Scripture of the Scientific writers, the 
Bible and Nature, but one 'external' (the Bible), and the 
other 'internal', which is the Holy Spirit speaking in the 
heart. Although 

'the external ground which we possess for our belief at the 
present day is highly important, . . . that which is internal, and 
the peculiar possession of each believer, is far superior to all, 
namely the Spirit itself.' 3 

The text of Scripture has come down to us through the 
hands of many redactors and editors and translators; and 

'it is difficult to conjecture the purpose of Providence in com- 
mitting the writings of the New Testament to such uncertain 

1 Paradise Lost, v. 571. 

2 Cf. his indifference about the Ptolemaic-Copernican controversy. 
8 De Doctrina Christiana, ch. xxx. 



72 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

and variable guardianship, unless it were to teach us by this very 
circumstance that the Spirit which is given to us is a more cer- 
tain guide than Scripture, whom therefore it is our duty to 
follow.' * 

Thus Milton, with a lofty self-reliance worthy of his own 
Satan, frees himself from that last infirmity of noble 
Protestants — subservience to holy writ. In appealing to 
an inner principle of certainty, Milton shows himself to 
be in the main current of seventeenth century thought, 
which in all directions was seeking by this very means to 
liberate itself from the authority of tradition. For philo- 
sophers, divines, and critics alike, as the century pro- 
ceeded, 'what is most true' came increasingly to mean (in 
addition to 'what is mechanically explicable') 2 'what can 
be clearly and distinctly conceived; what is innate or 
inscribed upon the minds of all men in common ; what 
is inwardly approved by the moral sense; what is con- 
sonant with nature and reason.' For making a fresh start 
such as this century was everywhere attempting, nothing 
was more essential than to discover a principle which 
would set men free from the accumulations of the past, 
and provide a basis of (as it seemed) unquestionable and 
verifiable truth for the erection of new systems. 

In this, as in other directions, Milton is seen to be one 
of the rationalising theologians of the century; and it is 
therefore not surprising to find that his view of Scripture 
is substantially at one with that of the Cambridge Pla- 
tonists, whose attitude is summed up in the phrase of John 
Smith: 'To follow Reason is to follow God'. Reason 
(used in a sense to be discussed later) was for the Platonists 
the ultimate source of authority in matters of faith ; and 
the function of Scripture was to illuminate and confirm its 
dictates, never to contradict them. Revelation is not con- 
fined to the pages of holy writ, nor to the age of the 

1 De Doctrina Christiana, ch. tool. % See ibove, p. 7. 



ON SCRIPTURAL INTERPRETATION 73 

prophets and apostles, for Reason, a 'seed of deiform 
nature', is 'natural revelation'. 'The written word of 
God', says Whichcote, 'is not the first or only discovery 
of the duty of Man ' . ' Clear principles of truth and light, 
affirmed by the natural reason and confirmed by the law 
and purpose of the Gospel, are above all particular 
examples and texts of Scripture.' The same tendency is 
seen in George Fox, who, as is well known, liberated him- 
self from the letter of Scripture in like manner, and 
claimed access to the original source of all illumination. 
The 'inner light' of the Quakers ranks with the 'Reason* 
of the Platonists, the 'clear and distinct ideas' of Des- 
cartes, or the 'common notions' of Lord Herbert of 
Cherbury, as another of the inward certitudes by means 
of which the century was testing the legacies of antiquity 
and declaring its spiritual independence. So potent was 
the change in the climate of opinion after the middle of 
the century that even a Puritan like Baxter, who was pre- 
pared to endure persecution for nonconformity through- 
out the Restoration period, is affected by it. In one of the 
interesting passages of self-analysis to be found in his 
Autobiography^ he tells us that as he grew older he became 
more and more convinced of the supreme need for the 
'witness of the indwelling Spirit'. Whereas in youth all 
his concern had been for the correctness of his doctrinal 
position, now it was centred upon 'internal experience'. 
In spite of the excesses of Ranters and Illuminists who 
find their 'witness' in 'a certain internal assertion or 
enthusiastic inspiration ', he feels that in another manner 
'the Holy Ghost is the witness of Christ . . . the Spirit 
by renovation, sanctification, illumination and consola- 
tion, assimilating the soul to Christ and to heaven'. 1 The 
degree of relief which this change brought with it can 
best be appreciated by the perusal of such a document as 

1 Baxter's Autobiography, ed. J. M. Lloyd Thomas, p. no. 



74 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

Grace Abounding, in which Bunyan describes the agonised 
years during which he was at the mercy of conflicting 
texts of Scripture, which seemed alternately to smile upon 
him and then to condemn him to everlasting perdition. 

For all their detestation of Hobbes, those who were 
moving in the direction indicated by Milton, the Pla- 
tonists, Fox or Baxter, might have found themselves in 
accord with this observation of his : 

'Fof it is not the bare words, but the scope of a writer, that 
giveth the true light by which any writing is to be interpreted, 
and they that insist upon single texts, without considering the 
main design, can derive nothing from them clearly; but rather 
by casting atoms of Scripture, as dust before men's eyes, make 
everything more obscure than it is.' x 

Hobbes, indeed, must be accounted one of the pioneers of 
destructive biblical criticism. For him, as we shall see 
later, the Bible, together with the Church and the clergy, 
formed one of the strongholds of a way of thinking and 
feeling which he considered pernicious ; and, while appear- 
ing to preserve a decorous orthodoxy, he analyses away 
most of the keywords and phrases — 'Word of God', 
'spirit', 'prophecy', 'authority of Scripture', 'revelation', 
and the rest — connected with the current beliefs. To him 
the only question is, Why do we believe that certain books 
are of God, and contain the rule of faith? and his reply is, 
that as we personally have no ' supernatural ' evidence for 
this, we must believe it because we are so commanded by 
the only competent authority, the civil sovereign. 

Towards the close of the seventeenth century the 
prestige of Scripture, though outwardly unchanged, had 
actually diminished appreciably. It was not so much that 
men had rejected it as 'false'; it was rather that as 
'natural religion' came more and more to seem all- 
sufficient, 'revelation' began to appear, if not super- 

1 Leviathan, ch. xliii. end. 



ON SCRIPTURAL INTERPRETATION 75 

fluous, at least secondary, and perhaps even slightly in- 
convenient. An age which discovered God effortlessly in 
the starry heavens above, and in the moral law within, 
could not but be embarrassed by having to acknowledge 
dependence upon the annals and legends of an unenlight- 
ened Semitic tribe. Shaftesbury, the philosopher of the 
Augustan Aufklarung^ censures the orthodox for proving 
the necessity of Revelation by denying man's natural 
goodness, 'as if Good-nature and religion were enemies'. 1 
And by the time we reach Joseph Butler, 2 Nature, instead 
of being a valuable supplement to Revelation as it was 
with Bacon, has virtually become the standard against 
which Revelation itself is to be tested. 

1 Cf. his Preface to Select Sermons of Dr Whichcot, 1698. 

2 Analogy of Religion, 1736. 



CHAPTER V 



The Philosophical Quest for Truth 

DESCARTES 



WE are beginning to see, then, that in its quest for 
truth the seventeenth century discovered two 
main kinds of certainty, one objective or exter- 
nal, the other subjective or internal. In respect of the 
external world, that account was 'truest' which explained 
the mechanics of causation; and the most 'real' of the 
properties of things were those which could be mathe- 
matically expressed. The internal certainties, as we have 
seen, were chiefly relevant in the regions of faith and of 
ethics, where truth came to mean that which is vouched 
for by the 'inner light', by 'Reason' and the 'moral 
sense', or by 'nature and good sense'. 

These two orders of certainty, objective and subjective, 
correspond to Descartes's division of reality into Exten- 
sion (matter) and Thought (mind, soul), and it is now 
desirable to consider some of the relevant problems arising 
from the work of that thinker, who is generally recognised 
as the 'father of modern philosophy', and certainly 
exerted a major influence on the intellectual history of 
our period. 

The philosophic quest for truth in the seventeenth cen- 
tury was typically concerned with the epistemological 
problem. The besetting questions were, Can I know any- 
thing of 'reality'? and if so, how, and what? Why, we 
may ask, was this the central preoccupation of seventeenth 
century philosophy? The problem of knowledge had not 
greatly troubled the schoolmen, since they had assumed 

76 



THE PHILOSOPHICAL QUEST — DESCARTES JJ 

that the mind was in contact with real things in sense- 
perception. 'Things' were, for them, entities having cer- 
tain qualities or accidents which they regarded as being 
'in' the objects, somewhat as we do in the ordinary 
common-sense view. The process of knowledge was that 
by which the mind in a sense becomes its object, by catching 
from it its visible, audible or tangible ' species '. But since 
the advent of the Copernican theory and the mechanical 
philosophy it had been brought home with increasing 
emphasis that things are not what they seem, neither are 
they what they have been said to be. Sense-data, as well 
as authoritative teaching, were found to be misleading. 
This disturbing result was due above all to Galileo's 
analysis of bodies into 'matter in motion', and his 
analysis of the properties of 'matter' into 'primary' and 
'secondary'. At the beginning of our period the ques- 
tion 'What are the characteristics of real things?' had 
been answered by mathematicians and physicists. The 
reply had been that the ' real ' (as far as the physical world 
is concerned) is that which is extended and movable in 
space and time. The mathematical properties which 
alone were relevant to the science of dynamics founded by 
Galileo — the properties of figure, position, motion, and 
the rest — were for him the primary qualities of matter ; 
that is, they were the qualities which could be said to be 
in things, and which were measurable, and expressible in 
mathematical formulae. Galileo was the heir of the 
atomists of the ancient world, for he revived the concep- 
tion of bodies as composed of particles or atoms of matter. 
All bodies whatsoever are so composed ; the differences 
between them are in reality only differences in the figure, 
density, and motion of these particles. Our senses, how- 
ever, report the presence of other qualities, which seem 
equally with mass, figure, motion, etc., to be 'in' objects 
around us — colour, temperature and sound, for example. 



78 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

These are the 'secondary' qualities — secondary because 
irrelevant for the purposes of mechanics, and because they 
are mental phenomena, not objective entities. The 
'reality' behind each one of them is a certain configura- 
tion or motion of the atoms; the 'colour' or the 'sound', 
etc., is merely a sign in consciousness of the existence of 
this reality outside us. Thus the senses do not give us 
knowledge of the thing-in-itself. Only the abstracting 
intellect can approach such knowledge ; and it does so by 
filtering sense-impressions as clear as possible of subjec- 
tive ingredients. True knowledge would be knowledge 
to which the mind itself had contributed nothing. Thus 
the analysis of the properties of matter into primary and 
secondary may be said to be the philosophical aspect of 
the general seventeenth-century effort to separate the true 
from the false: 'primary' being more or less equivalent 
to 'true' and 'secondary' to 'false', or 'fictitious'. It 
was not given to the seventeenth century to perceive 
that the 'primary' qualities were as much dependent 
upon sense-perception as the 'secondary'. It was still 
felt that what could be weighed, measured and expressed 
mathematically must be wholly independent of the mind, 
and therefore must possess a reality-status of a unique 
kind. 

The celebrated 'method' of Descartes 1 is at once the 
outcome of the unsettling effect of the new thought, and 
the type of the way in which a fresh winnowing of truth 
from error was being attempted. Descartes's starting- 
point is a scepticism, as complete as he can make it, about 
the truth, first, of commonly received opinions and beliefs, 
and secondly, of sense-data. The schools, he says, and 
my senses, tell me that the sun moves round the earth ; I 
now learn that schools and senses have alike deceived me. 
As for the schools, 

1 Discours de la Mithode, written 1636, published 1637. 



THE PHILOSOPHICAL QUEST DESCARTES 79 

' I had become aware, even so early as during my college days, 
that no opinion, however absurd and incredible, can be imagined, 
which has not been maintained by some one of the philosophers.' * 

Accordingly, first amongst the rules of method which he 
lays down appears this significant one : 

'Never to accept anything for true which I did not clearly 
know to be such; that is to say, carefully to avoid precipitancy 
and prejudice, and to comprise nothing more in my judgment 
than what was presented to my mind so clearly and distinctly as 
to exclude all ground of doubt.' 2 

He begins, then, in his First Meditation, by announcing his 
intention to doubt all his former beliefs, and the evidence 
of his senses, and to continue doubting until he arrives, if 
at all, at something indubitable. He will even suppose 

'that some malignant demon who is at once exceedingly potent 
and deceitful has employed all his artifice to deceive me; I will 
suppose that the sky, the air, the earth, colours, figures, sounds 
and all external things, are nothing better than the illusions of 
dreams.' 

But then, in the Second Meditation, he discovers the 
thing that cannot be doubted, his own existence. I must 
exist, in order to doubt, or to be deceived. And what, 
essentially, is this ' I ' ? A thinking thing ; cogito, ergo sum. 
That is to say, not only is this consciousness of self-exist- 
ence the first and most indubitable of all truths, but I, as a 
thinking being, must be of a non-material nature. But now, 
what of external objects, which I have assumed to exist 
also? My perceptions of external objects maybe deceptive; 
they may not be true copies of the objects themselves; 
nevertheless it is certain that I have these perceptions, 
and moreover I habitually assume that I know 'things' 
better than I know 'myself. In order to illustrate the 

1 Discours de la MMode, pt. ii. Cicero had made the same observation. 

2 ibid. 



80 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

nature of our knowledge of external objects Descartes per- 
forms a little experiment. Take a piece of beeswax, he 
says, and note its attributes; it has sweetness, and odour; 
it has a certain colour, figure and size; it is hard and cold, 
and easily handled; and when struck it emits a certain 
sound. Then place it near the fire, and what happens? 
its taste and smell vanish, its colour changes, its figure is 
destroyed, its size increases, it becomes liquid and hot, it 
cannot be handled, and although struck it emits no sound. 
In short, all the attributes by which we recognised it as a 
piece of wax have been changed to their opposite, and yet 
we judge that it is still wax. 'What, then, was it that I 
knew with so much distinctness in the piece of wax?' 
None of the things I observed by the senses, none of the 
attributes, but only 'a body' that appeared first under one 
set of attributes, and then under another. 'Retrenching 
all that does not belong to the wax, let us see what 
remains. There certainly remains nothing except some- 
thing extended, flexible and movable'. I cannot imagine 
what the wax is in itself; I can only perceive it by an 
intuition (inspectio) of the mind. Bodies, themselves, then, 
are not perceived by the senses, but by the intellect. And 
the discovery that when the wax is 'stripped of its vest- 
ments' and considered 'quite naked' it is the mind that 
apprehends it, not the senses — this confirms his assertion 
that there is nothing we can apprehend so clearly as our 
own mind. 

Having doubted of all things, and found nothing, as 
yet, more certainly true than his own existence as a think- 
ing being, it is the philosopher's next concern to rebuild 
the world he has demolished, by discovering, if he can, 
more certainties. What is to be thought, then, of the 
world of external objects, earth, sky, stars and the rest, of 
which he had hitherto not questioned the existence? He 
decides that whatever is clearly and distinctly apprehended is 



THE PHILOSOPHICAL QUEST DESCARTES 8 I 

true?- But the ideas our senses offer us of objects are not 
clear and distinct, as the experiment with the beeswax has 
shown. All that is true about these ideas is that we per- 
ceive them ; and the error to which we are so prone is that 
of judging that these are the exact 'likenesses' of the real 
things. Granting for the moment that our ideas do pro- 
ceed from real objects, and are not all modes of conscious- 
ness in us (as they yet may be), it does not follow that they 
are 'like' those objects. The eye tells me that the sun is a 
very small object, but on astronomical grounds I hold it to 
be immense. Can I discover any object, amongst those of 
which I have ideas, which must needs exist apart from me? 
In order to determine this point, Descartes searches him- 
self for some clear and distinct idea which could not have 
been derived from his own ideas of himself. For even 
what seemed most clear and distinct about the piece of wax 
— its mathematical aspects — might have been taken by 
analogy from various parts of his self-awareness (con- 
sciousness of himself as a substance, having duration, 
position and so forth). 

'There only remains, therefore, the idea of God, in which I 
must consider whether there is anything that cannot be sup- 
posed to originate with myself.' 

The idea of God cannot so originate, he continues, for the 
attributes of omniscience, eternity, immutability, omni- 
potence, and perfection which made up that idea, could 
not be derived from my idea of myself. 

'And thus it is absolutely necessary to conclude, from all that 
I have before said, that God exists.' 

Indeed, it may be said that my perception of God's exist- 
ence is presupposed in my perception of myself, for how 
could I know myself as a limited, imperfect, doubting 
being unless I previously had the idea of a being more 

1 Third Meditation. 



82 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

perfect than myself? Thus Descartes is able to satisfy 
himself that 

*the idea of a being more perfect than myself must of necessity 
have proceeded from a being in reality more perfect.' 

All clear and distinct ideas have the attribute of 'truth', 
that is, they 'contain reality'; now this idea of God is 
more clear and distinct than any other, clearer even than 
my idea of 'substance' ; therefore it contains more reality 
than any other; therefore God exists. 

If, after pondering this celebrated 'ontological proof, 
we attempt to express our feeling about it, we shall very 
likely echo Keats's remark, ' I can never understand how 
anything can be known for truth by a process of abstract 
reasoning.' The difficulty we chiefly feel, I think, is that 
the statements, 'The idea of God contains more reality 
than any other' and 'God exists', so far from being 
identical, appear to have very little connection with each 
other. For us, 'God exists' is simply the central affirma- 
tion of religious experience, and no alleged meaning for the 
phrase in abstraction from that experience can have any 
significance. The ontological proof, one feels, attempts to 
prove by an intellectual process what is in reality 'given' 
(if at all) by other than intellectual means. Why did 
Descartes find the idea of a perfect being innate within 
him? Because centuries of Christian discipline, based 
upon the religious experience of Christ and the apostles, 
had written it upon the hearts of Europeans, so that it 
seemed to be 'naturally' there. The possession of the 
idea of God in the heart, like the revelation of God through 
Nature, only proves his existence to those who believe it 
already on other grounds. 

However, having satisfied himself in this way that God 
exists, Descartes feels that he can now deduce from this 
the existence of material things. If God exists and pos- 



THE PHILOSOPHICAL QUEST DESCARTES 83 

sesses, as he must, all the perfections I attribute to him, 
he cannot be a deceiver, so that my ineradicable convic- 
tion that there is a world of objects distinct from myself 
cannot be a delusion. I must still, however, guard against 
the erroneous supposition that my 'ideas' are necessarily 
'like* their originals. But that there is something ex- 
tended and movable, which is the substratum for all the 
sensible qualities, and the cause of my 'ideas', Descartes 
considers as certain. Although objects may not be in 
themselves what we apprehend them to be by the senses, 

'It is at least necessary to admit that all which I clearly and 
distinctly conceive as in them, that is, generally speaking, all that 
is comprehended in the object of speculative geometry, really exists 
external to me.' x 

The mathematical properties are true (i.e. clear and dis- 
tinct, and therefore guaranteeing objective reality); other 
'properties' are confused and obscure, and must be care- 
fully distinguished from the true and the real. 'For I will 
assuredly reach truth if I only fix my attention sufficiently 
on all the things I conceive perfectly, and separate these 
from others which I conceive more confusedly and ob- 
scurely: to which for the future I shall give diligent 
heed.' 2 

My certainty of my own existence, then, and my cer- 
tainty of God's existence, are the two first certainties; 
from these we can also derive certainty that the objects of 
mathematical thought are real. 

But there is another aspect of the Cartesian thought 
which must be emphasised, namely, its dualism — that is, 
its division of reality into two substances — thought and 
extension. Outside, extended throughout infinite space, 
there is the world of mathematical objects strictly con- 
trolled by mechanical law; and that this is real we have 

1 Sixth Meditation (my italics). 2 Fourth Meditation (last sentence). 



84 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

seen. Within, there is the thinking substance which is 
the true ' I ', unextended, distinct from the body, and not 
subject to mechanical laws ; and the reality of this is in- 
tuitively certain. Within the human individual, then, 
these divided and distinguished worlds mysteriously met 
and blended ; soul and body, thought and extension being 
somehow inexplicably found in union. Descartes is as 
sure as Plato that ' I ' am not my body or any part of it, 
that my thinking self can be conceived apart altogether 
from the body, and that thus my soul may be immortal. 
This fundamental dualism greatly complicated the epis- 
temological problem, for if the soul were totally distinct 
from the body, how could it have that contact with matter 
which is implied in knowledge? Whatever theory of 
sense-perception one adopted, there was always a point at 
which one arrived at the gulf, which must somehow be 
bridged, between matter-in-motion and Mind or Soul. 
The difficulty of conceiving how this junction could be 
made haunted and hampered philosophical speculation for 
another century and a half. The problem is admirably 
expressed by Joseph Glanvill, a fervent Cartesian, in his 
Vanity of Dogmatizing, in the course of an enumeration of 
the limitations of human knowledge. 'How the purer 
Spirit', he writes, 

'is united to this Clod, is a knot too hard for fallen Humanity 
to unty. How should a thought be united to a marble-statue, 
or a sun-beam to a lump of clay ! The freezing of the words in 
the air in the northern climes, is as conceivable, as this strange 
union. . . . And to hang weights on the wings of the winde seems 
far more intelligible.' x 

And if we are unable to conceive how matter can act upon 
mind, neither can we conceive how mind can agitate 
matter — how the soul can move its tenement of clay. 

1 p. 20 (1661). Cf. below, p. 175. 



THE PHILOSOPHICAL QUEST DESCARTES 85 

We can do this, Glanvill continues, by material analo- 
gies, but if we consider the soul 

'under the notion of the ingenious Sir K. Digby as a pure Mind 
and Knowledge, or as the admir'd Descartes expresses it, une 
chose qui pense, as a thinking substance; it will be as hard to appre- 
hend as that an empty wish should remove Mountains: a sup- 
position which if realized, would relieve Sisyphus? 

Strange devices had to be resorted to in order to link 
together what God had joined and philosophers had put 
asunder. It was widely held, as by Descartes himself, 
that the liaison was effected by the 'animal spirits', which 
though material, were sufficiently rarefied to be able to 
communicate directly with spirit. But although 

'Our blood labours to beget 

Spirits, as like soules as it can, 
Because such fingers need to knit 

That subtile knot, which makes us man:' * 

the knot was really still untied, for in the last analysis 
there yet remained a point at which matter set in motion 
that which was not matter, and conversely, at which mind 
actuated matter. There was also the theory known as 
Occasionalism (Arnold Geulincx, 1625-69), according to 
which there is no interaction between mind and matter 
except through the dependence of both upon God. 
When I perceive a tree, for example, a motion is caused in 
my nerves. This motion is not mechanically transferred 
to my soul, since that is inconceivable. What happens is 
that God miraculously causes a corresponding effect to 
take place in my soul 'on the occasion' of my perceiving 
the tree. Or conversely, when I will anything, for in- 
stance to move my hand, God causes the matter of my 
body to conform to the intention of my mind. Here then 

1 Donne, The Extasie. 



86 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

was a queer outcome of the new search for truth : miracu- 
lous interventions had been banished from the physical 
universe only to reappear within the narrow compass of 
the individual human being. God had made the world in 
such a way that it could run 'of itself, but he had made 
man so fearfully and wonderfully that he could not act or 
perceive without God's continuous intervention. God 
was indeed a necessary hypothesis in seventeenth century 
philosophy. 



POETRY AND THE CARTESIAN SPIRIT 

What seemed, to Descartes's contemporaries, an out- 
standing merit of his system was that although it repre- 
sented a complete break with the scholastic tradition it left 
unchallenged the main fabric of the faith. Indeed, Des- 
cartes had shown that the new thought, so far from being 
hostile to theism, presupposed it, and must therefore be a 
powerful support to it. It was partly for this reason that 
the Cambridge Platonists, whose great desire was to 
amalgamate religion with the best philosophy of their 
time, were attracted to Cartesianism. Yet it is probable 
that Descartes's influence told against religion in the long 
run, just as it told against poetry; and Henry More's 
ultimate reaction against it may have been due to his 
realisation of this. At first sight it may seem inexplicable 
that a philosophy in which God and the soul are the first 
certainties should prove an enemy of religion and poetry. 
And yet this should cause no surprise if we remember that 
the 'God' and the 'I' of Descartes are both intellectual 
abstractions; his 'God', as we saw, having no kinship to 
the God of genuine religious experience, and his 'I' being 
merely the 'thinking part of me'. To be certain of these 
realities meant, in the end, to be certain only of mathe- 



THE PHILOSOPHICAL QUEST DESCARTES 87 

matics. The feeling that whatever can be clearly and 
distinctly conceived is 'true' means that the very structure 
of things is assumed to conform with the laws of the 
human mind — a capital instance of the Idols of the Tribe. 
The converse of this feeling is as I have indicated, that 
whatever cannot be clearly and distinctly (i.e. mathe- 
matically) conceived is 'not true'. In this way Cartesian 
thought reinforced the growing disposition to accept the 
scientific world-picture as the only ' true' one. The criterion 
of truth which it set up, according to which the only real 
properties of objects were the mathematical properties, im- 
plied a depreciation of all kinds of knowing other than that 
of the 'philosopher'. And as both religion and poetry (what- 
ever may be our conception of them) spring from quite 
other modes of knowing, the Cartesian spirit, in so far as it 
prevailed, was really hostile to them both. Descartes him- 
self is perhaps only the most conspicuous representative of 
a way of thought which was irresistibly gaining ground as 
the century proceeded, and we must not, therefore, ascribe 
to him all the consequences of that thought. But the fact 
remains that by the beginning of the eighteenth century 
religion had sunk to deism, while poetry had been reduced 
to catering for 'delight' — to providing embellishments 
which might be agreeable to the fancy, but which were 
recognised by the judgment as having no relation to 
' reality ' . As Dryden wrote in his Apology for Heroic Poetry 
and Poetic Licence^ we were to be 'pleased with the image, 
without being cozened by the fiction'. The Cartesian 
spirit made for the sharper separation of the spheres of 
prose and poetry, and thereby hastened that 'dissociation 
of sensibility' * which Mr Eliot has remarked as having 
set in after the time of the Metaphysical poets. The 
cleavage then began to appear, which has become so 
troublesomely familiar to us since, between 'values' and 

1 Homage to J. Dry den, p. 30. 



88 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

'facts'; between what you felt as a human being or as a 
poet, and what you thought as a man of sense, judgment 
and enlightenment. Instead of being able, like Donne or 
Browne, to think and feel simultaneously either in verse or 
in prose, you were now expected to think prosaically and 
to feel poetically. Prose was for conveying what was 
felt to be true, and was addressed to the judgment; 
poetry was for conveying pleasure, and was addressed to 
the fancy. 

These developments could not fail to result in a lower- 
ing of the status of poetry, as an activity which by its very 
nature forswore the only methods by which, it was now 
felt, truth could be reached. 'Philosophy' has indeed 
proved itself more than once the natural enemy of poetry. 
It was not only from the Cartesian universe, but also from 
Plato's Republic, that poetry was banished. From the 
Augustan world poets themselves were, of course, so far 
from being literally banished that they were highly 
honoured; it was poetry itself which suffered from the 
intellectual climate. After Descartes, poets were inevit- 
ably writing with the sense that their constructions were 
not true, and this feeling robbed their work of essential 
seriousness. It was felt, as Locke said, that poetry offers 
'pleasant pictures and agreeable visions', but that these 
consist in 'something that is not perfectly conformable' to 
truth and reason. 1 All that one could do, then, was either 
to make one's verse as conformable to truth and reason as 
possible (e.g. the Essay on Man), or to indulge in agreeable 
visions in the full consciousness that they were fiction. 
It is the sense that their material is only agreeable fiction 
which gives the peculiar hollowness to much of the mytho- 
logical and other 'machinery' employed by eighteenth 
century poets. Even in the seventeenth century, as we 

1 Essay Concerning Human Understanding, bk. ii. ch. ii. sect. 3. Cf. below 
pp. 290 ff. 



THE PHILOSOPHICAL QUEST DESCARTES 89 

have seen, even in that most biblical of centuries, the very 
Scriptures were coming to seem a potential obstacle to 
truth on account of the 'vulgar and illustrative' manner 
often adopted by the inspired writers — who wrote, said 
John Smith the Platonist, for the 'most Idiotical sort of 
men in the most Idiotical way'. No wonder, then, that 
other poetry should still more decisively be felt as mis- 
representation, or at least as fiction. The effect upon 
poetry of the Cartesian identification of truth with 'clear 
and distinct ideas' is thus summed by by Jean-Baptiste 
Rousseau, in a letter to Brossette (24th July 1715): 

'J'ai sou vent oui dire a Despreaux que la philosophic de Des- 
cartes avait coupe la gorge a la poesie, et il est certain que ce 
qu'elle emprunte des mathematiques desseche l'esprit et l'accou- 
tume a une justesse materielle qui n'a aucune rapport avec la 
justesse metaphysique, si cela se peut dire, des poetes et des 
orateurs.' 

It would be rash to suggest that Descartes had a direct 
influence upon the thought or style of any particular 
writers (other than professed philosophers), but the intel- 
lectual movement of which he is the representative pro- 
duct undoubtedly had. Literary developments in England 
after the middle of the seventeenth century show a marked 
analogy with his thought. His insistence upon sound and 
plain Reason, and clear and distinct ideas, and, in general, 
the mathematical lucidity of his spirit and writings, find 
their counterpart in the general set of that time towards 
prose and good sense, and in the reaction against the meta- 
physical tradition in poetry. The difference between 
Dryden and Donne is largely due to the fact that in the 
interval which separates them the Cartesian world-picture 
had replaced the Scholastic. The order, precision and 
correctness of post-Restoration art echo the methodical 
regularity of Descartes's thinking and the perfection of 



90 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

his mechanised universe. Thus Descartes's influence 
counted strongly for neo-classicism of the later type which 
looked for authority less to the ancients than to Nature 
and Reason. Nature herself, as the Great Machine, hardly 
needed any methodising to yield the 'rules' of art. And 
Nature and Homer were, they found, the same. 

Above all, Descartes's influence was decisive in effect- 
ing that break with the past which started the modern 
world on its career. After him it became natural to appeal 
to 'reason', the inner tribunal, instead, as hitherto, to ex- 
ternal authority. In thus encouraging his age to shake off 
its awe for antiquity Descartes was contributing an essen- 
tial ingredient to the growth of the idea of 'progress'. 
The revolutionary philosophy of the next century, with its 
contempt for history, and its confident perfectibilism, 
owes its initial impulse largely to him. For Descartes's 
thought, like all thought which is purely rational and 
intellectual, was fundamentally unhistorical. When we 
can construct the world from the inner certainties, what 
need of history to tell us how things have come to be as 
they are? We have that within which passes history. In 
this way Descartes's cogito ergo sum not only fostered intel- 
lectualistic views but increased man's sense of his own 
dignity and importance. Man must be little lower than 
the angels if, from the thinking principle within him, he 
can evolve the world and God himself. The glamour of 
Renaissance magnificence hangs over Descartes, as over 
Bacon, as he prophesies the entry of Man into the 
promised land: 

' I perceived it to be possible to arrive at a knowledge highly 
useful in life; and in room of the speculative philosophy usually 
taught in the schools, to discover a practical, by means of which, 
knowing the force and action of fire, water, air, the stars, the 
heavens, and all the other bodies that surround us, as distinctly as 
we know the various crafts of our artisans, we might also apply 



THE PHILOSOPHICAL QUEST DESCARTES 9 1 

them in the same way to all the uses to which they are adapted, 
and thus render ourselves the lords and possessors of nature? x 

To this sense of having made a proud step forward 
towards the conquest of Nature, can be traced, I think, 
much of the contempt for the middle ages which abounds 
in the next century. And to cogito ergo sum can also be 
ascribed the remarkable prevalence of satire in the same 
period. For the identification of man's nature with the 
thinking principle within — the feeling that we are that 
part of us which cogitates — must produce the concurrent 
realisation that there is a vast discrepancy between man's 
ideal and his actual nature. The temper which views all 
things in their theory rather than in their historical setting 
must also see little, as it gazes upon human institutions, 
but failure and futility, and as it contemplates human 
actions, little but departures from the rational norm. It 
is just in the comparison between actual things and their 
theory that satire consists, and the dry light of Cartesian- 
ism threw upon the deformities of actual humanity just 
the kind of illumination which is necessary to evoke the 
satiric comparison. 

One further consideration may serve to bring out, by 
way of contrast, the quality of Cartesian thought. As 
might be expected of a philosophy which sets its face so 
resolutely towards the future, Cartesianism despises not 
only history, but also the past of the individual human 
being. A comparison may usefully be suggested between 
the estimates of childhood in, say, Wordsworth's Immor- 
tality Ode and that in Section lxxi. of Descartes's Prin- 
ciples of Philosophy. Wordsworth, it will be remembered, 
sees childhood as a period of life and illumination from 
which the later course of existence is but one long decline. 
Recollections of childhood are cherished as mitigations of 

1 Discours de la Methode, pt. vi. (my italics). 



92 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

the heavy and the weary weight of the adult conscious- 
ness; and the child is addressed as 

' Mighty Prophet ! Seer blest ! 
On whom those truths do rest 
Which we are toiling all our lives to find.' 

For Wordsworth, in full revolt against the eighteenth 
century consequences of Cartesianism, it is precisely the 
'meddling intellect', the cogitating principle, which 'mis- 
shapes the beauteous forms of things' ; the adult conscious- 
ness, schooled by custom and an arid philosophy, distorts 
reality instead of apprehending it. For Descartes, eager 
only for what was clear and distinct, that is, for mathe- 
matical truth, childhood was a period of error and preju- 
dice from which we could and must emerge, though only 
by steady and prolonged effort. The Section in question 
is entitled 'That the chief cause of our errors is to be 
found in the prejudices of our childhood'. After an 
enumeration of childish errors (which all consist in mis- 
taking sense-impressions for real things) he continues : 

'And our mind has been imbued from our infancy with a 
thousand other prejudices of the same sort, which afterwards in 
our youth we forgot we had accepted without sufficient examina- 
tion. . . . And although now in our mature years,' he adds in the 
following section, ' when the mind, being no longer wholly sub- 
ject to the body, is not in the habit of referring all things to it, 
but also seeks to discover the truth of things considered in them- 
selves, we observe the falsehood of a great many of the j udgments 
we had before formed; yet we experience a difficulty in expunging 
them from our memory, and, so long as they remain there, they give 
rise to various errors? x 

1 Descartes, Principles of Philosophy, sects, lxxi. and lxxii. (my italics). 



CHAPTER VI 



The Philosophical Quest for Truth 
(continued) 



THOMAS HOBBES 



' The universe, that is, the whole mass of all things that are, 
is corporeal^ that is to say, body, and hath the dimensions of magni- 
tude, namely length, breadth, and depth ; also, every part of 
body is likewise body, and hath the like dimensions, and conse- 
quently every part of the universe is body, and that which is 
not body is no part of the universe : and because the universe 
is all, that which is no part of it is nothing, and consequently 
nowhere? [Leviathan, ch. xlvi.J 

ATTENTION has recently been drawn by Dr 
/ \ I. A. Richards to the fact that the works of 
A. jL Mencius and other Chinese thinkers are not dis- 
interested enquiries into 'truth' (as we have understood 
that phrase since the Renaissance) but are 'designed to 
give intellectual support to a system whose basis is social'. 1 
They are 'dominated by a suasive purpose'. And Dr 
Richards reminds us that 'this dependence of conceptions 
upon social purposes is not a peculiarity of Chinese think- 
ing, though possibly more evident there than in our own 
thinking'. What we have to look out for, in reading the 
philosophers of Western Europe, is the emotional or 
social determinant which makes their work what it is, and 
this is usually implicit rather than explicit. As I have 
attempted to suggest above, what will seem 'true' or 
'explanatory' to any age or individual is what satisfies 
current demands and interests. What has this writer 
most urgently demanded from life? is the question we must 

1 Mencius on the Mind, p. 56. 

M 



94 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

constantly ask ourselves. The original impulse, towards, 
say, ' materialism ', or 'idealism', is usually something 
sublogical ; not, that is, a ' conviction ' resulting from an 
intellectual process, but a quite simple set of the whole 
being towards a particular way of life. The direction once 
given, the subconscious affirmation once made, the char- 
acter of the metaphysical superstructure is determined 
accordingly. It would be well if it were more generally 
realised that metaphysical utterances which appear to be 
statements of 'fact' are disguised imperatives, or at least 
disguised optatives; and our studies of the philosophers 
would be more remunerative if we went to them, not for 
'truth', but in order to discover what particular^/ or 
utinam their teaching implies. 

Few of our modern classical philosophers illustrate 
these considerations more clearly than Thomas Hobbes. 
And this is so not merely because in his best known book, 
the Leviathan^ he avowedly mobilises his 'philosophy' for 
the purpose of political suasion. This certainly makes it 
much easier to detect his fundamental preferences and 
aversions, but these can also, I think, be divined in his 
'purely speculative' passages, and in the quality of his 
prose style. Consider, for instance, the utterance quoted 
at the head of this Chapter — perhaps Hobbes's most 
typical affirmation about the nature of things. It repre- 
sents what, to Hobbes, was Truth ; nothing, probably, was 
felt by him to be truer than this: 'The universe is cor- 
poreal ; all that is real is material, and what is not material 
is not real.' What does this statement 'mean'? Is it 
'true'? If, in asking these questions, our desire is to 
know whether the statement correctly represents a real 
state of affairs, we shall find ourselves involved in the 
further questions, What is 'matter'? what is a 'state of 
affairs'? And it is doubtful whether any reply to such 
questions can be more than suasion, that is, a recommen- 



THE PHILOSOPHICAL QUEST — HOBBES 95 

dation or an exhortation to feel in a certain way, and to act 
accordingly. 'The universe is material' loses its efficacy 
as 'statement* when we call to mind that we have no con- 
ception what 'matter' in itself may be; but it retains none 
the less a lowerful latent meaning as incantation, and as a 
pointer indicating a particular state of mind in its author. 
Its 'meaning', then, is the emotion in Hobbes which it 
symbolises, and which it may also communicate to us. 
The contents which it disguises are too varied to catalogue, 
but they probably include some of the following injunc- 
tions: 'Fear and reverence Nature no longer; she is no 
mystery, for she "worketh by motion", and Geometry, 
which is the mother of the sciences, and indeed the only 
science God has yet vouchsafed to us — Geometry can 
chart these motions. Feel, then, as if you lived in a world 
which can be measured, weighed, and mastered ; and con- 
front it with due audacity. Do not trust those who will 
tell you of "substantial forms" or "separated essences", 
for these figments are part of a vast system of imposture, 
and if once you come under the influence of such men, 
your sense of political obligation will be impaired. . . .' 
Very nearly every statement of Hobbes can be reduced 
either to hatred and contempt of schoolmen and clerics, 
or to fear of civil war and love of ordered living in a stable 
commonwealth. A certain belief is of the kind which dis- 
courages enquiry, or weakens the authority of kings, 
therefore it is false and pernicious. Another belief, on the 
contrary, favours 'speculation of bodies natural', the 
favourite pursuit in which Hobbes had been interrupted 
by the civil commotions ; or it buttresses the lawful auth- 
ority of sovereigns — therefore it is true. Contempt is one 
of the commonest of Hobbes's emotions : contempt for 
all upholders of what he calls 'Aristotelity', and for their 
doctrines. He is unable to conceive — and scarcely can 
we, as we read him — that schoolmen and theologians can 



96 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

be anything but madmen or knaves. This contempt gets 
into his prose-rhythm, and flashes out in many a ' brutally 
telling' image: 

'For the proper (i.e. "literal") use of the word "infused", 
in speaking of the graces of God, is an abuse of it; for those 
graces are virtues, not bodies to be carried hither and thither, 
and to be poured into men as into barrels' x 

'For, from the time that the Bishop of Rome had gotten to 
be acknowledged for bishop universal, by pretence of succession to 
St Peter, their whole hierarchy, or kingdom of darkness, may be 
compared not unfitly to the '"''Kingdom of fairies" ', that is, to the 
old wives' fables in England concerning "ghosts " and "spirits", 
and the feats they play in the night. And if a man consider the 
original of this great ecclesiastical dominion, he will easily per- 
ceive that the Papacy is no other than the "ghost" of the deceased 
"Roman Empire", sitting crowned upon the grave thereof.' 2 

Reason is 'not to be folded in the napkin of an implicit 
faith, but employed in the purchase of justice, peace, and true 
religion'. 

'For it is with the mysteries of our religion as with wholesome 
pills for the sick, which, swallowed whole, have the virtue to cure; 
but chewed, are for the most part cast up again without effect' 3 

In the grim homeliness of these similitudes, as in the 
sledge-hammer thudding of the clauses in the motto- 
extract above, we can hear the voice of a man to whom 
only one kind of truth — his own — is conceivable, but 
whose scorn for his deluded or deceiving foes is mingled 
with fear of their power. A comparison between the prose 
styles of Hobbes and Browne would reveal, almost with- 
out considering their thoughts, the difference between a 
simple and a complex sensibility. Hobbes, though the 
elder by seventeen years, writes as one for whom Truth, 
that 'obscured Virgin', is now wholly 'exantlated' from 
the well in which she had been hidden. Browne lives, 
amphibiously, in divided and distinguished worlds, and 

1 Leviathan, ch. xxxiv. (my italics). 2 ibid., ch. xlvii. 

* ibid., ch. xxxii. 



THE PHILOSOPHICAL QUEST HOBBES 97 

the richness of his prose betokens the range of his explor- 
ations and the rapidity of his transits. With Hobbes there 
is but one real world, that in which all is 'body'; all else 
belongs to the 'kingdom of darkness* inhabited only by 
fairies, ghosts and 'surds'; and this is what gives his 
style its singleness and force, while making it, in the long 
run, monotonous and unsatisfying. 

Hobbes belongs to that class of thinkers, usual in 
periods of rapid scientific advance, to whom a 'natural- 
istic' type of explanation seems completely satisfying. In 
Hobbes's age this meant the acceptance of mechanico- 
materialism as an exhaustive account of reality. Hobbes 
is a specially significant figure for the purpose of this 
study, for he illustrates perhaps better than any other 
seventeenth century writer the immediate results of the 
wholehearted adoption of the new philosophy, and its 
application in every field of enquiry. A consideration of 
some of his views, we may therefore hope, should help us 
to answer the questions with which we are mainly con- 
cerned, namely what affirmations were involved in the 
acceptance of mechanical ' truth ' in our period ? and what, 
in consequence, had to be rejected as 'error'? 

We have already seen that the philosophy of the school- 
men was first and chief amongst the hindrances to the new 
' truth ' . As an enemy of the Aristotelian tradition Hobbes 
may be classed with Galileo, Bacon or Descartes. His 
reasons for rejecting it are much the same as theirs, and 
for the most part he merely adds to the usual arguments 
his characteristic bluffness of tone. 'When men write 
whole volumes of such stuff, are they not mad, or intend 
to make others so?' 1 Hobbes was an extreme nomin- 
alist, and the metaphysics of the schools, with its 'enti- 
ties' and 'quiddities', seemed to him simply sound and 

1 Leviathan, ch. viii. end. Said with reference to Suarez' chapter on the 
' Concourse, motion and help of God '. 

H 



98 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

fury, signifying literally 'nothing'. Words are names, 
and names may be used to signify (i) the bodies that 
work on the senses, (2) the sense-impressions themselves 
('imaginations'), (3) the parts of speech ('names of 
names'), or (4) the relations between names (e.g. the verb 
1 to be '). ' All other names are but insignificant sounds ; ' 1 
'and words whereby we conceive nothing but the 
sound, are those we call "absurd", "insignificant" and 
"nonsense"'. When we say, he writes, 

'that "a man is a living body", we mean not that the "man" is 
one thing, the "living body" another, and the "is" or "being" 
a third; but that the "man" and the "living body" is the same 
thing; because the consequence, "if he be a man, he is a living 
body", is a true consequence, signified by that word "is". 
Therefore "to be a body", "to walk", "to be speaking", "to 
live", "to see", and the like infinitives; also "corporeity", 
"walking", "speaking", "life", "sight", and the like, that 
.signify just the same, are the names of "nothing" . . .' 

Hobbes may not have taken more than the first steps 
towards the analysis of the meaning of 'meaning', but he 
must be allowed to have been unusually aware of what Dr 
Richards calls the 'symbol-situation'. 2 His constant 
endeavour to think behind words to the objects or mental 
images which they symbolise makes him, for his period, 
exceptionally astute in the detection of 'bogus entities'. 
Bogus, that is, according to his criterion of 'reality'. For 
in reading Hobbes, or any other thinker, we have to try, 
as far as we can, to remain constantly on the alert for his 
unquestioned assumptions — for the doctrines, that is, 
which he feels to be facts, and therefore leaves unanalysed. 
With Hobbes this underlying trust is in the sole reality of 
'body'. He has an inward assurance of the materiality of 
the universe, that is, of all 'real things'. A 'material' or 
* real ' thing, or a ' body natural ', was one which occupied 

1 ibid., ch. iv. Cf. the ' flatus <vocis ' of William of Occam. 

2 Mencius, p. 1 1 1, and The Meaning of Meaning, ch. i. 



THE PHILOSOPHICAL QUEST HOBBES 99 

space, was divisible, movable, and in sum, behaved geo- 
metrically. What Hobbes seems to leave unquestioned is 
that he knows the meaning of ' matter 1 or ' body*. It is as cer- 
tain, for him, that 'body' means what is real as that 
'entity' or 'being' means nothing. Following Hobbes's 
own method of analysis, we might say that words like 
'body' and 'real' were names referring to all that inter- 
ested him, all that seemed to him worthy of the attention 
of himself or any other sane being. These words stand, 
then, in the last resort, for a state or disposition of mind; 
and the reason why Hobbes did not regard 'body' as 
a name signifying nothing was because it symbolised a 
sense of certainty in himself which he never criticised. It 
ought, perhaps, to be added that we are not entitled to 
reproach Hobbes for failing to criticise his fundamental 
assumptions, unless we ourselves are in the habit of watch- 
ing, as well as using, our own. Probably those who to-day 
most resemble Hobbes are interested in psychology rather 
than in geometry, in 'mind' rather than in 'body', and it 
is likely that to the modern consciousness generally what 
is felt to be most 'explanatory' is one or other of the 
current accounts of our mental processes and habits. To 
appreciate Hobbes's position it is necessary to remem- 
ber how difficult we find it not only to regard, but to feel 
these accounts as largely fictional and metaphorical. 
Our difficulty is far less than his, for we have been warned, 
and he had not. 

If the metaphysics of the schoolmen were madness, what 
should be said of their ' physics ' ? Hobbes makes the usual 
complaint, that the scholastic explanations not only explain 
nothing, but discourage further research. They were 
the explanations of men who felt that all really important 
truth was already known, and were therefore not eager to 
fill in the picture with physical detail. It was enough, to 
explain a phenomenon, to say, in different words, that it 



IOO THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

happened because it was its nature so to do. Probably 
this is the only ultimate explanation that can be given of 
anything ; but the new age did not want ultimate explana- 
tions: it wanted descriptions of intermediate processes. 

* If you desire to know why some kind of bodies sink naturally 
downwards towards the earth, and others go naturally from it, 
the schools will tell you out of Aristotle, that the bodies that sink 
downwards are "heavy", and that this heaviness is it that causes 
them to descend. But if you ask what they mean by "heaviness" 
they will define it to be an endeavour to go to the centre of the 
earth. So that the cause why things sink downward, is an 
endeavour to be below; which is as much as to say, that bodies 
descend, or ascend, because they do. Or they will tell you the 
centre of the earth is the place of rest, and conservation for heavy 
things; and therefore they endeavour to be there: as if stones and 
metals had a desire, or could discern the place they would be at, 
as man does; or loved rest, as man does not; or that a piece of 
glass were less safe in the window than falling into the street. . . . 

' And in many occasions they put for cause of natural events 
their own ignorance, but disguised in other words: ... as when 
they attribute many effects to "occult qualities"; that is, to 
qualities not known to them; and therefore also, as they think, 
to no man else. And to "sympathy", "antipathy", "antiperi- 
stasis", "specifical qualities", and other like terms, which signify 
neither the agent that produceth them, or the operation by which 
they are produced.' 

'If such "metaphysics" and "physics" as this be not 
"vain philosophy,"' he concludes, 'there never was any; 
nor needed St Paul to give us warning to avoid it.' x 

2. The 'Sour. 
But Hobbes rejected much more than the mere 
'Aristotelity' of which he, like Milton, had had his fill at 
the University. He rejected also much that his contem- 
poraries retained. We have seen that Descartes, the 
representative philosopher of the seventeenth century en- 
lightenment, had recognised two substances as real, 

1 Leviathan, ch. xlvi. 



THE PHILOSOPHICAL QUEST HOBBES IOI 

matter and soul; and that he had taken as his starting- 
point the thinking 'ego' conceived as immaterial, that is, 
not extended and not subject to the laws of motion. 
From this, which was to him the primary certainty, 
Descartes had derived his certainty of God and his cer- 
tainty of the world. I have tried above to indicate some 
of the inconveniences involved in this dualism. Probably 
any system which dichotomises reality in this kind of way 
is likely to invite attempts to resolve the divided worlds 
into one, and the uncomfortable antithesis of matter and 
mind in the Cartesian scheme seems to have made inevit- 
able both the materialist and the idealist solutions. Either 
all is ' really ' matter, or all is ' really ' mind. Hobbes chose 
the first alternative: 'soul' as an 'immaterial substance' 
having no location or motion, was one of the 'insignifi- 
cant sounds', and must consequently go. Thus the last 
stronghold of a once all-powerful system of thought falls 
before the attack of mechanico-materialism. The ac- 
cepted tradition of centuries past, blended out of Platonic, 
Aristotelian, neo-Platonic, Stoic and Christian elements, 
spoke with seemingly overwhelming authority for the soul 
as a spiritual and even divine essence, informing the body, 
but existing in its own right, separable, and consequently 
immortal. And if the authority of this teaching had 
needed any reinforcement, which it hardly did, the revival 
of Platonic studies at the Renaissance had served to give 
it renewed sanction for the philosophically-minded. If 
any doctrine has ever been felt as a fact, it was this, as 
held throughout the Christian centuries. No wonder 
Descartes, and most others, found it first among their 
certainties. To deny it, in the seventeenth century, was 
no light matter of academic debate; it was the worst of 
atheisms, for it set man amongst the brutes. 

Hobbes denied it; but the manner of his denial must 
be a little examined, for it throws light on the mentality of 



102 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

the age. For Hobbes, 'thought' was no alien substance 
unaccountably subsisting in an otherwise material world, 
and 'perception* no exception to the universal mechanical 
rule. Thought was itself a form of motion in matter; my 
'ideas' are vibrations in the matter of my brain or nerves. 
There is no gulf to bridge between the world and the soul, 
or between the soul and the body; no question of hanging 
weights on the wings of the wind, or uniting a sunbeam to 
a lump of clay. The cause of ' sense ' (perception), Hobbes 
explains, is the motions in external bodies acting directly 
or indirectly upon the 'organ' of perception. All external 
bodies are 'really' composed, it will be remembered, of 
particles of matter in a state of motion. These motions 
are mechanically transferred, either by contact with the 
object as in touch or taste, or through some medium as in 
sight or sound, to the organs of sense, and thence con- 
veyed to the brain, where the corresponding motions give 
rise to the seemings which are our 'ideas '. I have already 
drawn attention to the importance, in the formation of 
seventeenth century notions of the 'true' and the 'real', 
of the separation of the 'primary' from the 'secondary' 
qualities of things. Hobbes, though he does not use 
these terms, will have us clearly to understand that 

'whatsoever accidents or qualities our senses make us think there 
be in the world, they be not there, but are seemings and appari- 
tions only: the things that really are in the world without us, are 
those motions by which these seemings are caused.' x 

Similarly, all that 'really' takes place in us when we per- 
ceive anything is 'divers motions', for 'motion produceth 
nothing but motion'. 2 These motions appear in our con- 
sciousness as colour, sound, temperature and so on. 
Hobbes does not seem to have troubled himself to ask 
the further question, How dp these 'real things', these 

1 Human Nature, ch. ii. (Molesworth ed. of Works, vol. iv. pp. 8-9) (my italics). 

2 Leviathan, ch. i. 



THE PHILOSOPHICAL QUEST HOBBES IO3 

motions, get turned into 'seemings'? True, he tells us 
that the 'pressure' from bodies outside us is carried in- 
wards by the 'nerves' and 'membranes' to the brain and 
heart, and 'causeth there a resistance, or counter-pressure, 
or endeavour of the heart to deliver itself, which en- 
deavour, because "outward", seemeth to be some matter 
without'. 1 But this highly metaphorical account is only 
intended to explain why, although the object is one thing 
and our image of it another, the image appears to be 'out- 
side' us. It does not explain to what the, image 'appears'; 
what it is in us which is 'conscious' of the seemings. 
Every particle of matter in the universe is supposed cap- 
able of receiving motion from the impact of another, but 
it is not therefore held to be 'conscious' of it. However, 
all I am now concerned to point out is that Hobbes did 
not feel the need to postulate a separate entity or 'soul' in 
order to account for the phenomena of consciousness. 
He felt quite sure that he knew what was real, namely the 
abstract geometrical world of matter in motion, and that 
this world extended without a break into ourselves. The 
relative unreality of our 'ideas' need not trouble us, since 
they are at any rate produced by real things, and the only 
mode in which we can perceive them. We are safe as 
long as we do not confuse these 'ideas' with the 'things' 
they represent. He even (inconsistently?) calls 'sense' 
'absolute knowledge' or 'knowledge of fact'. 2 

The received doctrine of the soul occupied a central 
position in the vast corpus of traditional teaching which 
Hobbes wished to set aside as 'error'. It was the grand 
example of the deluded scholastic belief in 'substantial 
forms' and 'real essences'. It is salutary to remind our- 
selves once again that in the Leviathan Hobbes has a 
'suasive' purpose, and that almost in Chinese fashion, 
he is there bringing doctrines to a pragmatic test. Do they 

1 ibid., ch. i. a See Leviathan, ch. vii. and ch. ix. 



104 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

or do they not make for the maintenance of lawful 
authority? he is asking. Full of loathing for the civil 
war which is going on around him, he heaps together into 
one compendious amalgam all the beliefs which he dis- 
likes, and sees in every one of them an element in the 
vast conspiracy against lawful civil government. This is 
quite explicitly recognised by him in an interesting pas- 
sage towards the close of the book : 

'But to what purpose, may some men say, is such subtlety in 
a work of this nature, where I pretend to nothing but what is 
necessary to the doctrine of government and obedience? It is 
to this purpose, that men may no longer suffer themselves to be 
abused by them that by this doctrine of "separated essences", 
built on the vain philosophy of Aristotle, would fright them from 
obeying the laws of their country, with empty names; as men 
fright birds from the corn with an empty doublet, a hat, and a 
crooked stick. For it is upon this ground that when a man is 
dead and buried, they say his sou/, that is his life, can walk separ- 
ated from his body, and is seen by night among the graves. Upon 
the same ground they say that the figure, and colour, and taste 
of a piece of bread has a being there where they say there is no 
bread. And upon the same ground they say that faith, and wis- 
dom, and other virtues, are sometimes "poured" into a man, 
sometimes "blown" into him from heaven, as if the virtuous 
and their virtues could be asunder; and a great many other things 
that serve to lessen the dependence of subjects on the sovereign power 
of their country. For who will endeavour to obey the laws, if he 
expect obedience to be poured or blown into him? Or who will 
not obey a priest that can make God, rather than his sovereign, 
nay, than God himself? Or who, that is in fear of ghosts, will 
not bear great respect to those that can make the holy water that 
drives them from him? And this shall suffice for an example of 
the errors which are brought into the Church from the "entities" 
and "essences" of Aristotle, which it may be he knew to be false 
philosophy, but writ it as a thing consonant to & corroborative of 
their religion, and fearing the fate of Socrates.' 1 

1 Leviathan, ch. xlvi. (my italics). Aristotle, it will be noticed, is here 
accused by Hobbes of the ' Chinese * pragmatism of which he himself, in 
another manner, is an exponent. 



THE PHILOSOPHICAL QUEST HOBBES IO£ 

One further consequence of Hobbes's denial of the 
separate immaterial soul may be noted before we pass to 
the next topic. And that is, that Hobbes (it is one of his 
several points of contact with Milton) is a 'mortalist*. 
He believes, as he logically must, that the death of the 
body is the death of the man, since ' soul ' for him simply 
means 'life'. 

'That the soul of man is in its own nature eternal, and a living 
creature independent on the body, or that any mere man is 
immortal otherwise than by the resurrection in the last day, 
except Enoch and Elias, is a doctrine not apparent in Scripture.' r 

How Hobbes deals in general with Scripture must 
shortly be considered; for the moment let us merely 
observe that he saves appearances in this connection by 
means of the 'resurrection in the last day*. That far-off 
divine event was sufficiently distant and hypothetical to 
be safely admissible into Hobbes's scheme. To say that 
dead men wake on the Day of Judgment is, for him, as 
good as to say that they wake up never, only it has the 
advantage of sounding much more orthodox. The tradi- 
tional view has been the source of many most undesirable 
superstitions, in particular the belief in purgatory and in 
ghosts. Hobbes lays the blame for all this upon the 
Greeks and the Fathers. 

'For men being generally possessed before the time of our 
Saviour, by contagion of the demonology of the Greeks, or an 
opinion that the souls of men were substances distinct from their 
bodies, and therefore that when the body was dead, the soul of 
every man, whether godly or wicked, must subsist somewhere by 
virtue of its own nature, without acknowledging therein any 
supernatural gift of God; the doctors of the Church doubted a 
long time, what was the place which they were to abide in, till 
they should be reunited to their bodies in the resurrection; sup- 
posing for awhile, they lay under the altars; but afterwards the 

1 ibid., ch. xxxviii. 



106 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

Church of Rome found it more profitable to build for them this 
place of purgatory ; which by some other Churches in this latter 
age has been demolished.' 1 

In fact, the doctrine of the soul's immortality has been a 
source of revenue to the ecclesiastical government 
through the sale of indulgences and pardons; and simi- 
larly the belief in 'walking ghosts' has been either deliber- 
ately taught or not confuted, 'to keep in credit the use of 
exorcism, of crosses, of holy water, and other such inven- 
tions of ghostly men'. 2 Hobbes cannot, of course, deny 
the reality of 'eternal life' and the torments of hell. But 
he gives them a twist of his own. In the first place, he 
will not accept the 'dark doctrine' of 'eternal torments*. 
The fires of hell may be unquenchable, but that does not 
mean that those who are cast into it will suffer endless 
torture. There is for them a 'second death', which being 
everlasting, mercifully ends their woes sooner or later. 
But further, the Scriptural accounts of both heaven and 
hell are for the most part to be understood 'metaphori- 
cally', they are states of felicity or of misery, and what is 
more startling, their probable location is on this earth. 
Hobbes can find texts which prove to his own satisfaction 
that 'after the coming again of our Saviour in His majesty 
and glory, to reign actually and eternally, the kingdom of 
God is to be on earth'; 3 and the scene of the torments of 
hell, he infers,; is also terrestrial. Even to-day the reader 
has a queer sense of lost bearings as he beholds all the 
splendours and glooms of Christian eschatology being 
thus given, by this prosaic intellect, a local habitation and 
a name. 

3. The* mil \ 
Bound up with the traditional belief in the Soul was 
the belief in Free Will as one of the Soul's 'faculties'; 

1 ibid., ch. xliv. * ibid., ch. H. 3 ibid., ch. xxxviii. 



THE PHILOSOPHICAL QUEST HOBBES IO7 

and rejection of the one meant rejection of the other also. 
Hobbes unhesitatingly takes the step into determinism. 
'Free will' he classes amongst the meaningless terms 
'whereby we conceive nothing but the sound'; 

'And therefore if a man should talk to me of "a round quad- 
rangle", or "accidents of bread in cheese"; or, "immaterial 
substances"; or of a "free subject"; a "free will", or any 
"free", but free from being hindered by opposition, I should 
not say he were in an error, but that his words were without 
meaning, that is to say, absurd.' 1 

Hobbes's account of the Will forms part of his theory of 
perception : 

'External objects cause conceptions, and conceptions appetite 
and fear, which are the first unperceived beginnings of our actions.'' 2 

The motion set up in the organs of perception by the 
'pressure' of external objects is conveyed, as we saw, to 
the heart. Here it either helps, or hinders, a new prin- 
ciple which looks suspiciously like a disguised 'entity', 
but which Hobbes employs with no misgiving — the 
'vital motion'. If the vital motion is 'corroborated' by 
this new motion, we have the sensation of 'delight', which 
implies 'appetite' or an impulse to advance towards the 
pleasing object. If it is thwarted, we experience 'aver- 
sion', which implies an impulse to withdraw. In either 
the 'real effect' in the heart is only a form of motion; the 
feelings of delight or aversion, like the sensations of 
colour or sound, are but the 'appearance' or 'sense' (con- 
sciousness) of that motion. That which causes 'delight' 
or 'appetite' we call Good, and strive to obtain it; that 
which causes 'aversion' we call Evil, and strive to avoid it. 

'Nor is there any such thing as absolute goodness, considered 
without relation. Seeing all delight is appetite, and presupposeth 
a further end, there can be no contentment but in proceeding. 

1 ibid. j ch. v, 2 Human Nature, Works, vol. iv. p. 67. 



108 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

. . . Felicity, therefore, by which we mean continual delight, 
consisteth not in having prospered, but in prospering.' x 

The life of man is characteristically figured by Hobbes 
under the similitude of a race, in which all are contending 
against all for the most choiceworthy things — power and 
glory : 

*In it to endeavour is appetite; to be remiss is sensuality: to 
consider them behind is glory: to consider them before is 
humility: ... to fall on a sudden is disposition to weep: to see 
another fall is disposition to laugh: 2 to see one outgone whom 
we would not, is pity: to see one outgo whom we would not, is 
indignation: to hold fast by another is love: to carry him on 
that so holdeth is charity: to hurt oneself for haste is shame: . . . 
continually to be outgone is misery: continually to outgo the 
next before is felicity: and to forsake the course is to die.' 3 

Happiness lies, not in the repose of achievement, but in 
the excitement of pursuit, and for the eternal felicity pro- 
posed to us by theologians as the ultimate goal of our 
striving Hobbes has only a contemptuous remark in 
passing: 

'What kind of felicity God hath ordained to them that 
devoutly honour him, a man shall no sooner know, than enjoy; 
being joys that now are as incomprehensible as the word of the 
schoolmen "beatifical vision" is unintelligible.' * 

The final outcome, then, of the complicated processes 
by which we respond to external stimuli is some kind of 
action, whether it takes the form of choosing some 'good' 
or of avoiding some ' evil \ It may happen that appetency 
and aversion jostle with each other, and that the victory 
hangs for a while uncertain between them. This is the 
state called 'deliberation*. But in the end one of them 
wins, and we make our 'choice'. This final choice, or as 

1 Human Nature, Works, vol. iv. pp. 32-3. 

2 He defines laughter as ' sudden glory ' in Leviathan, ch. vi. 

8 Human Nature, Works, vol. iv. pp. 52-3. 4 Leviathan, ch. vi. end. 



THE PHILOSOPHICAL QUEST HOBBES IO9 

Hobbes calls it, 'last appetite', is the 'Will'. Thus the 
Will itself is not 'free' or 'voluntary', in the sense of 'self- 
originating'. It seems to be so because we are conscious 
of the act of choice, but unconscious of the obscure pro- 
cesses which led up to it and really determined it. Never- 
theless Hobbes finds a sense for 'voluntary action'; it is 
action determined by this 'last appetite' only, and not by 
external compulsion. In no other sense can there be 
'freedom' of will: 

'But if by freedom we understand the faculty or power, not 
of willing, but of doing what they (i.e. men or animals) will, then 
certainly that liberty is to be allowed to both.' x 

This result, that man is really an automaton, was of 
course implicit already in the account of 'sense' as being 
itself a form of motion in matter. It was that classification 
of 'mind' with 'matter' which rendered it, along with 
every other part of the universe, subject to all the rigour 
of strict causation. If the 'will' is part of 'Nature', then 
it too must be bound fast in Fate. It must be remem- 
bered that the fast binding of Nature herself, though by 
no means a new thought, had been brought home to the 
thinkers of that time with unexampled force by the new 
mechanics. It had perhaps been 'held', but it had hardly 
before been so deeply /^/z, that 'Nature could move only 
along one road to a pre-destined end', and that 'in brief, 
the act of creation had created not only the universe but 
its whole future history. . . . The final establishment of 
this law as the primary guiding principle in Nature was 
the triumph of the seventeenth century. . . .' 2 It is not 
surprising, if this was so, that the seventeenth century 
should have witnessed an attempt to subdue the stubborn 
human will to the same great law. There was also a clear 
analogy between this scientific determinism and the 

1 De Colore, English Works, vol. i. p. 409. 

* The phrases are those of ]esim, Mysterious Universe, p. 16. (Cf. above, p. 49.) 



IIO THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

current predestinarian theology; God's 'foreknowledge 
absolute' included, and his 'immutable decrees' con- 
trolled, both the course of each atom and the destiny of 
each soul. It was for this reason that those who, like 
Milton and the Platonists, were concerned above all for 
the moral life of man, clung passionately to the doctrine 
of Free Will. 

Dr Johnson's 'Sir, we know our will is free, and there's 
an end on't!' may or may not be the last word on the 
question of determinism, but at any rate it expresses what 
seems to be proved by experience, namely that however 
essential determinism may be to science, it is also essential 
for man to feel and to act as if he were 'able to affect the 
course of events by his own volition'. 1 Hobbes's Levi- 
athan is an admirable illustration of this point; for in that 
work the determinist philosopher uses all his powers to 
urge that man can and must so affect the course of events. 
That he can do so is shown in the Social Contract, which 
converted the life of man at one blow from a welter of 
mutual rapine into an ordered commonwealth. That he 
must at all costs continue to do so, by supporting in every 
way the authority of the Leviathan, is the purport of the 
whole argument, and is illustrated by many a despairing 
reference to the contemporary chaos. But the Contract, 
the authority of the Leviathan and the Civil War are all 
alike products of determinism? True, but the point is 
that Hobbes writes throughout as if these issues were for 
men to decide. In strict determinism there should, I sup- 
pose, be no passion for values which may be lost or pre- 
served by taking thought, for nothing is contingent upon 
human volitions. But Hobbes's book, as we have seen, is 
nothing if not suasive; he cares supremely for strong 
government, and blames his opponents quite as lavishly as 
if they were completely answerable for their own actions. 

1 Cf. Jeans, loc. cit. 






THE PHILOSOPHICAL QUEST HOBBES III 

Hobbes sees the need for determinism as a scientific hypo- 
thesis, and also finds it most useful as a solvent for views 
he dislikes, but where his own interests are deeply engaged 
he leaves it out of account. It is noteworthy that through- 
out the Leviathan, although it is of course implicit, he 
hardly makes more than one direct reference to it. 1 

4. 'The Christian Commonwealth' '. 

It was one of the characteristics of the seventeenth 
century that no English writer of that time, whatever 
his philosophical views might be, could explicitly abandon 
the assumption that the universe rested upon a basis of 
divine meaning. Further, all thinkers of that century, 
with but one or two exceptions, assumed the truth in 
some sense of the specifically Christian doctrines, and 
the supernatural status of the Bible. It can hardly fail 
to strike a modern reader that there is a radical incom- 
patibility between the principles of Hobbes's philosophy 
and those of any sort of Christianity, if not of any sort 
of religion. One would have supposed that of all the 
forms of 'error' which he was trying to expel from men's 
minds, the beliefs comprised under the general heading 
1 religion ' — including Christian doctrine, Bible and Church 
— would for him have been the first and the most for- 
midable. And I shall suggest, in a moment, that it was 
indeed so in reality, yet the pages of the Leviathan are 
thick-sown with Scriptural citations, and the appearance, 
at least, of orthodoxy is somehow preserved. The fact 

1 Leviathan, ch. xxi. : ' " Liberty " and " necessity " are consistent, as in 
the water that hath not only " liberty ", but a " necessity " of descending by 
the channel ; so likewise in the actions which men voluntarily do : which, 
because they proceed from their will, proceed from " liberty " ; and yet, 
because every act of man's will, and every desire and inclination proceedeth 
from some cause, and that from another cause, in a continual chain, whose 
first link is in the hand of God the first of all causes, proceed from " necessity ". 
So that to him that could see the connections of those causes, the " necessity " of 
all men's voluntary actions would appear manifest.' 



112 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

is that in the seventeenth century one did not make 
frontal attacks upon the religious tradition; particularly 
if, like Hobbes, one happened to be constitutionally 
timorous. Hobbes was born in 1588, the Armada year, 
and he used to say that the alarms of that time had affected 
his nativity. He certainly had no inclination for the 
glories of any kind of martyrdom; moreover, the lawful 
religion claimed his loyalty as part of his duty as a sub- 
ject. To believe as one is bidden by the sovereign is, 
according to him, a political obligation; thus to venture 
all for ' truth ', if that truth happened to conflict with the 
established creed, would be not courage but sedition. 
But indeed the very notion of truth conflicting with what 
is lawfully established involves a contradiction, for in 
these matters 'truth' is what is established. We have 
no means of verifying the 'truths' of religion: neither 
can* we therefore be said to 'know' them — unless God 
vouchsafes us some direct supernatural proof. And as 
this is not to be expected to occur in these days, we must 
trust the ruling of the sovereign, who, until the final in- 
auguration of God's kingdom at doomsday, is God's 
earthly lieutenant. No Chinese sage, not the Vicar of 
Bray himself, could more decisively subordinate specu- 
lative truth to pragmatic considerations than Hobbes 
when, after venturing some conjectures about the geo- 
graphical position of the kingdom of God, he adds : 

'But because this doctrine, though proved out of places of 
Scripture not few nor obscure, will appear to most men a novelty, 
I do but propound it; maintaining nothing in this, or any other 
paradox of religion; but attending the end of that dispute of the 
sword, concerning the authority, not yet amongst my country- 
men decided, by which all sorts of doctrine are to be approved 
or rejected; and whose commands, both in speech and writing, 
whatsoever be the opinions of private men, must by all men, 
that mean to be protected by their laws, be obeyed. For the 
points of doctrine concerning the kingdom of God have so great 



THE PHILOSOPHICAL QUEST — HOBBES II3 

influence on the kingdom of man, as not to be determined but 
by them that under God have the sovereign power.' x 

What is important for us, however, is to notice how, 
holding the views that he does, Hobbes comports him- 
self towards that vast complex of dogmas, traditions, insti- 
tutions and attitudes based upon principles diametrically 
opposite to his own — the 'Christian Commonwealth*. 
The matter is important, because the study of it brings 
before us with unusual distinctness one of the main issues 
in seventeenth century thought, the problem, that is, of 
reconciling two inconsistent world-views. Two principal 
orders of Truth were present to the consciousness of the 
time : one, represented by Christianity, which men could 
not but reverence, and the other, represented by science, 
which they could not but accept. We have seen how 
Bacon and Browne dealt with the difficulty; let us now 
watch the behaviour of one who, much more fully than 
either of these, accepted all the implications of the 'new 
philosophy'. We shall find, as might have been expected, 
that while leaving the outer shell of the orthodox structure 
to all appearance unaltered, he is really at work rebuilding 
the interior with entirely new materials. 

(i) Religion. Hobbes's account of the origin of reli- 
gion does not suggest that he had a very high opinion of 
it. In four things, he tells us, 'consisteth the natural seed 
of religion : opinion of ghosts, ignorance of second causes, 
devotion towards what men fear, and taking of things 
casual for prognostics'. 2 The gods were at first the 
creation of human fear ; for ' this perpetual fear, always 
accompanying mankind in the ignorance of second causes, 
as it were in the dark, must needs have for object some- 
thing'. Surrounded by unknown and largely hostile 
forces, and continually anxious for the future, man sup- 
posed himself to be at the mercy of invisible agents ; and 

1 Leviathan, ch. xxxviii. * ibid., ch. xii. 



114 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

ignorant of natural causation, he supposed these spiritual 
powers to be the cause of his good or evil fortune. In his 
natural desire to propitiate the gods, he used towards 
them the same sort of obsequious behaviour as he would 
towards a man who had power over him. And in his 
anxiety to probe the unknown and the future he mistook 
coincidences for omens and prophecies. These seeds of 
religion have been carefully nurtured by rulers and priests, 
who saw that it was to their interest to keep men super- 
stitious. With the 'Gentiles' religion was thus 'part of 
human policy'. It will be noticed that in this account the 
existence of religion is attributed to causes which must 
needs tend to disappear as enlightenment increases. Does 
Hobbes, one asks, recognise any other and better kind of 
religion, which is not dependent for its existence upon 
superstition, the arts of priests and politicians, or 'jugg- 
ling and confederate knavery'? The reply is, I think, 
that he does recognise it — distantly; but takes very little 
interest in it. We are to distinguish, he tells us, between 
the Gentile Gods, who are the product of fear, and the 
One God, who is a necessary postulate of science. No 
one can think much about causation without seeing that 
there cannot be an infinite regress; there must be, 'as 
even the heathen philosophers confessed, one first mover; 
that is, a first and an eternal cause of all things, which is 
that which men mean by the name of God'. 1 So also 'by 
the visible things in this world, and their admirable order, 
a man may conceive there is a cause of them, which men 
call God.' It is, then, the God of deism — first mover and 
designer of the world-machine — that Hobbes offers as 
substitute for Zeus or Jehovah. But even to say that he 
'offers' this is an overstatement. For him the word God 
is really little but a symbol of the philosopher's fatigue. 
In his quest for truth the investigator at last reaches the 

1 ibid., ch. xii. 



THE PHILOSOPHICAL QUEST — HOBBES II£ 

limits of human capacity; then, in sheer weariness, he 
gives over, and says 'God'. But what inspires Hobbes 
is not the moment of the o a/titudo, but the discovery that 
we need not reach this point in our researches anything 
like so soon as had been supposed. And it is noticeable 
that in speaking of God his main endeavour is to empty 
this conception of all content. Of that which has not 
reached us through the senses we can have no 'image', 
thus we can have no 'idea' or 'conception' of God. We 
can only speak of him in a series of negatives, such as 
'infinite', 'immutable', 'incomprehensible', or in terms 
signifying his remoteness from our mortal state, such as 
'omnipotent', 'most high', and the like. All these 'attri- 
butes' are really 'pseudo-statements', that is to say, the 
reality to which they point is just simply our own pious 
disposition : 

'for in the attributes which we give to God, we are not to con- 
sider the signification of philosophical truth, but the signification 
of pious intention, to do him the greatest honour we are able.' * 

And from this account of God's attributes as 'signs of 
honour' Hobbes is quick to deduce the principle of uni- 
formity of worship in a commonwealth. The 'attributes' 
are words signifying, and evoking, certain attitudes and 
actions on our part, in particular the acts of public wor- 
ship. Now all that relates to how we are to behave is 
within the province of the sovereign, hence it follows 

'that those attributes which the sovereign ordaineth, in the wor- 
ship of God, for signs of honour, ought to be taken and used for 
such, by private men in their public worship.' 2 

This discovery of a social and political reference in the 
most soaring terms of theology illustrates Hobbes's 
technique in the explanation of meanings, and the kind of 
use to which he put it. What he is virtually saying is that 

1 ibid., ch. xxxi. 2 ibid. 



Il6 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

as we can have no knowledge of these high matters, we 
must regard our religious affirmations as signs that we 
intend to behave properly as subjects and citizens. They 
are, indeed, 'objectless beliefs', to be retained for their 
power in organising and maintaining valuable attitudes. 1 
It seems tolerably clear that the Anglican Church com- 
mended itself to Hobbes, as to Swift later, because, as an 
'Erastian' establishment, its deepest intention seemed to 
coincide with this view. For any religion which makes 
wider claims, which includes more, in fact, than sub- 
mission to secular authority, Hobbes has nothing but 
abhorrence. It was, of course, one of the advantages 
enjoyed by seventeenth century 'Protestant' writers, that 
under cover of the usual attack on 'Popery' they could, 
with every appearance of religious zeal, demolish the very 
foundations of religion itself. Hobbes's real hostility to 
religion, in spite of surface protestations, comes out pretty 
clearly in his tone, and in the direction of his emphasis. 
In his chapter ' OJReligion\ for example, most of the stress 
is laid upon everything which can render religion suspect: 
its questionable origin, its employment by unscrupulous 
tyrants as an instrument of policy, and its constant tend- 
ency to degenerate into superstition ; and his final word is 
a thrust at the 'unpleasing priests' to whom he attributes 
all the misfortunes of history, and who are to be found 
'not only among the Catholics, but even in that Church 
that hath presumed most of reformation.' 

(ii) Scripture. It was impracticable for Hobbes, as 
indeed it had proved for most people until the time of his 
modern disciples the Soviet rulers, to ' boot the Bible into 
the dustbin'. 2 And yet it would have saved him a great 
deal of trouble and hypocrisy if he could have done so. 

1 Cf. I. A. Richards, Science and Poetry, p. 61, and Principles of Literary 
Criticism, p. 280. 

8 See Mr Shaw's Adventures of the Black Girl. 



THE PHILOSOPHICAL QUEST — HOBBES II7 

For the Bible, or rather the contemporary attitude towards 
it, was perhaps the greatest of all the obstacles to the 
'exantlation of Truth'. As the 'Word of God' it could 
neither be denied nor ignored, and there was therefore no 
alternative but to 're-interpret' it and to confute the 
current 'misinterpretations'. In his biblical criticism 
Hobbes employs his usual indirect tactics, so that it is not 
immediately manifest how little he is really leaving of the 
supernatural authority of holy writ. 

To begin with, he analyses the phrases 'Laws of God' 
and ' Word of God '. The Laws of God he identifies with 
the Laws of Nature, that is to say, the principles of 
morality which are admitted everywhere and by all men. 
These are part of the 'natural word of God', for the 
Scriptures by which God makes himself known to us are 
threefold : they are, ' Reason ', ' Revelation ', and the voice 
of inspired prophets or other trustworthy intermediaries. 
Of these three scriptures there is little doubt which 
Hobbes prefers: it is Reason, which as the 'undoubted 
word of God 1 we are never, he says, to renounce. 1 What, 
then, are we to do when the Scriptures, which we acknow- 
ledge as supernaturally inspired, appear to conflict with 
Reason? Hobbes's reply is characteristic. In the first 
place there can be nothing in Scripture contrary to 
reason, but there may be things in it above reason. Are 
we then, as Bacon and Browne taught, to welcome each of 
these rebuffs as spiritual gymnastics, and perhaps deplore 
that ' there be not impossibilities enough in religion for an 
active faith'? Not precisely; there is, I think, a signifi- 
cant difference of tone between Browne's cheerful 'credo 
quia impossibile\ and even perhaps Bacon's 'Render unto 
faith the things that are faith's' — and Hobbes's recom- 
mendation, in such cases, to 'captivate our understanding 
to the words'. For what is the real meaning of this 

1 Leviathan, ch. xxxii. (my italics). 



Il8 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

'captivity'? Not submission of the intellect, but of the 
will\ so that the reverence we owe to Scripture turns out, 
rather unexpectedly, to be yet another aspect of our 
general obligation to obey constituted authority. 

'We then captivate our understanding and reason when we 
forbear contradiction; when we so speak, as by lawful authority 
we are commanded, and when we live accordingly. . . .' 

A man in love with mystery would not, one feels, 
have used the image 1 which Hobbes employs in this 
connection : 

'For it is with the mysteries of our religion as with wholesome 
pills for the sick, which, swallowed whole, have the virtue to 
cure; but chewed, are for the most part cast up again without 
effect.' 2 

The tone of this passage differs only by a few degrees of 
irony from that of the celebrated concluding paragraphs 
of Hume's essay on miracles: 

'Our most holy religion is founded on faith, not on reason; 
and it is a sure method of exposing it to put it to such a trial as 
it is by no means fitted to endure. So that upon the whole, we 
may conclude that the Christian Religion not only was at first 
attended by miracles, but even at this day cannot be believed by 
any reasonable person without one.' 

Just as the attributes of God, then, have been settled by 
competent authority, so has the question of the scriptural 
canon, and it is for us to show ourselves well-affected to 
the sovereign by submitting, here again, to the official 
ruling. 

1 Quoted above, p. 96. - Leviathan, ch. xxxii. 



CHAPTER VII 

Rational Theology 

WE are now to examine the ideas of a group of 
thinkers who, while fully sharing the desire of 
their century to separate Truth from Fiction, 
yet differed profoundly from Hobbes in their conviction 
that it was through the religious world-view, not the 
mechanical, that Truth must be sought. It is convenient 
to consider the 'rational theologians' of the seventeenth 
century immediately after Hobbes, since it was largely in 
conscious opposition to Hobbism that they defined their 
position. 

We have seen in Hobbes's work some of the effects of 
an attempt to turn the contemporary mechanical prin- 
ciples into a philosophy, and to give, in terms of the 'new' 
philosophy, an exhaustive account of reality. What, we 
may now ask, would be the position, in the seventeenth 
century, of those who, though conscious of living in days 
of 'enlightenment' and eager for whatever illumination 
might come, yet clung to the central religious affirmations, 
and sought to justify their validity against the menace of 
the new teachings? The situation was, of course, highly 
complicated. Broadly, the problem confronting such men 
as the Cambridge Platonists, and religious modernists in 
general, was (as it still is) how to combine 'philosophy' 
with religion, how to reconstruct old beliefs in the light 
of new knowledge. As we have seen, the fundamental 
impulse of the century was towards the 'explanation' of 
what had hitherto been mysterious; towards the state- 
ment in conceptual language of what had hitherto been 
expressed, or imagined, in pictures and symbols. A vast 
and august body of beliefs — the Christian religion — had 

119 



120 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

survived with scarcely impaired authority into this philo- 
sophic century, together with all its associated imagery, 
its world-picture, its scale of values, its way of life. It was 
not likely that the Baconian separation of religion from 
philosophy would long continue to satisfy. It was inevit- 
able, in this explanatory age, that an effort should be made 
to 'explain' Christianity, to restate its doctrines in terms 
which would be felt to be 'reasonable', that is, in accord- 
ance with the modern standards of reality. The wheel of 
history had come full circle, and the seventeenth century 
reproduced some of the features of the second century 
a.d. The Cambridge Platonists are the modern analogues 
of the Alexandrian Fathers, Clement and Origen, with 
this significant difference — that the Fathers came between 
a declining philosophy and a rising Christianity, while the 
seventeenth century theologians came between a declining 
Christianity and a rising philosophy. The resemblance 
between the two schools lies in their effort to maintain 
religion and philosophy as allies, not as strangers or 
enemies. Of the modern philosophers, it was Descartes 
whose system implied the closest union between faith and 
reason, and it is thus not surprising that the Cambridge 
movement derived much stimulus from him. But in the 
negative sense Hobbes counted for as much, for it was 
Hobbes whose materialism, determinism and virtual 
atheism stung the Cambridge men into a philosophic 
re-examination of the foundations of their beliefs. 

Not only the main currents of intellectual develop- 
ment, but also the particular circumstances of political 
and ecclesiastical history in the seventeenth century, may 
be said to have given rise to this philosophic type of Chris- 
tianity. The Reformation, which had originally involved 
the application of the spirit of enquiry to the system of 
mediaeval Christianity, had in fact ushered in a period not 
of 'enlightenment', but of embittered controversy. The 



RATIONAL THEOLOGY— LORD HERBERT 12 I 

Reformed Churches, appealing to Scripture against Rome, 
found themselves, in self-defence, compelled to define 
their positions in creeds and articles; and in the ensuing 
conflicts the original rationalising implications of the Re- 
formation were lost sight of. Dogmatic protestantism, 
indeed, showed itself more hostile to 'rational' religion 
than the Church had been. Hooker, who at the height 
of the period of controversy had anticipated the appeal of 
the Platonists to 'right reason' and the 'light of nature', 
found Geneva a more formidable foe than Rome. By the 
middle of the seventeenth century the confessions had so 
multiplied that the force of the customary appeal to an 
external authority — whether of Pope, Council, or Scrip- 
ture — was inevitably weakened, and religion, like philo- 
sophy, was constrained to look within for its certainties. 
The very same chaos which sent Hobbes flying for safety 
to his Leviathan, inspired those who cared for the theo- 
logico-metaphysical world-view to attempt the task of 
lifting religion right out of the sphere of controversy, and 
placing it on a firm, because 'philosophical', foundation. 
The contests of Puritan and Prelatist wore down the pres- 
tige of the authoritarian beliefs, and opened the way for 
the explanatory spirit of the age to begin its attack on the 
traditional material. 

LORD HERBERT OF CHERBURY 

Before considering the methods and temper of the 
Cambridge group, it may not be amiss to remind ourselves 
of the work of an earlier seventeenth century writer who 
was alive to the situation, and whose proposals for solving 
contemporary problems illustrate very clearly the direc- 
tion in which thought was moving. Lord Herbert of 
Cherbury is familiarly cited as the 'father of Deism', but 
as his work De Veritate has never appeared in English he 



122 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

is less known than he should be by many students of the 
century. For this reason I have thought fit to present his 
views by means of extracts rather lengthier than would 
otherwise have been necessary. 1 In his general aim Lord 
Herbert shows himself thoroughly representative of the 
seventeenth century movement, for he sets himself to 
discover an infallible touchstone by which Truth may be 
distinguished from Error. At this point I am only con- 
cerned with the application of his general principles to the 
explanation and restatement of traditional religious beliefs, 
and it is this which I propose now briefly to examine. 

As long as the religious consciousness is being ex- 
pressed through a single unquestioned system of dogma 
and imagery, no need is felt to explore its foundations; 
but when the multiplicity of religions has itself become 
the most pressing of problems, comparisons are inevit- 
ably suggested and attempts will be made to discover 
what principles, if any, may be common to them all. The 
need for principles of comprehension could indeed hardly 
fail to be felt by many men of very various shades of 
opinion in this disturbed period. Lord Herbert differs 
from such men as Baxter, Cromwell or Jeremy Taylor 
mainly in that, not content with reducing the creed to the 
minimum possible number of fundamentals, he goes 
behind Christianity itself, and tries to formulate a belief 
which shall command the universal assent of all men as 
men. It must be remembered that the old simple situa- 
tion, in which Christendom pictured itself as the world, 
with only the foul paynim outside and the semi-tolerated 
Jews within the gates, had passed away for ever. Explor- 
ation and commerce had widened the horizon, and in 
many writers of the century one can see that the religions 
of the East, however imperfectly known, were beginning 

1 I have translated these from the French version, 3rd ed. 1639. (The work 
was first published in its original Latin, Paris 1625.) 



RATIONAL THEOLOGY — LORD HERBERT 1 23 

to press upon the European consciousness. It was a 
pioneer-interest in these religions, together with the 
customary preoccupation of Renaissance scholars with 
the mythologies of classical antiquity, which led Lord 
Herbert to seek a common denominator for all religions, 
and thus to provide, as he hoped, the much-needed 
eirenicon for seventeenth century disputes. Herbert's 
method is strictly in accord with the general tendency of 
the age which, as we have seen, was towards referring all 
outstanding problems to an inner tribunal presided over 
by 'Reason', 'Nature', or 'Truths of first inscription*. 
Amidst the whirlwinds and the earthquakes of contending 
doctrine, how shall mankind ever learn the Truth? By 
attending to the still small voice within. Proceeding in a 
manner akin to that soon after followed by Descartes, 
Herbert discovers the principle of certainty in the 'natural 
instinct 1 , the 'common notions' of mankind. Whatsoever 
is vouched for by the notions commonly inscribed upon 
the minds of men as such, whatsoever is received by 
universal consent, that, and that only, is Truth. 

'Thus universal consent will be the sovereign test of truth, 
and there is nothing of so great importance as to seek out these 
common notions, and to put them each in their place as indubit- 
able truths. This is more necessary now than ever, for since it 
is not only by arguments that we are confused . . . , but terrors 
also are employed, to infuse into the head and into the soul 
(though conscience and the inner sense cry out against it) the 
belief that all who are outside the Church of these preachers, 
whether by ignorance or by error, are so criminal that they must 
without delay incur eternal damnation: poor mortals, astonished 
by these fulminations, have no refuge unless we establish certain 
unshakable foundations of truth supported by universal consent, 
to which they can have recourse in the doubts of Theology or of 
Philosophy.' x 

This 'consent' (for which Herbert pleads, it must be ad- 

1 De la Verite, p. 51 ff. 



124 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

mitted, with more enthusiasm than literary charm) must 
be universal, since many errors have been believed in par- 
ticular times and places. But God has placed within us 
a certain 'faculty* which 'witnesses' to Truth, and what 
this faculty certifies is the genuine article. 

'I add that vulgar doctrines are not altogether false, nor true, 
for there was never any Religion or Philosophy so barbarous that 
it had not its portion of truth; yet nevertheless if it has been cor- 
rupted by error (as generally happens) there is no other way of 
restoring it to its splendour than by the separation which depends 
upon our method. For if the things which are true have the 
witness of a certain faculty, those which are false will have no 
such witness. Universal consent, then, should be regarded, in 
my view, as the first and sovereign Theology and Philosophy, 
and to this end divine providence greatly assists, for it has, in 
these last centuries, so largely revealed what was unknown to 
the earlier ones, that it seems there remains nothing worthy to 
be known which has not been declared to us.' 

But our knowledge of Truth is not merely reached by boil- 
ing down all that our enlarged culture has taught us; we 
prove all things by the inner faculty: 

'Now we derive this universal consent not only from laws, 
religions, philosophies, and the written remains of all kinds 
of authors, but we claim further that there are certain faculties 
innate in us by mesns of which these truths are vouched for 
[conformees). Nevertheless we leave the mad and the foolish 
to follow any Church, school or opinion they like; ... we say 
merely that it is easy to establish the general truths which are 
necessary, and that universal consent (which can only be arrived 
at by divine providence) is the sole criterion of the truth in 
these necessary things. I undertake this labour the more 
willingly, for that in so doing I am espousing the cause of 
God, who has given these common notions in all times and 
in all places and to all men, as the means of his universal divine 
providence.' 

All that is required is that we should attend to the deliver- 
ances of the inner faculty, and give it free play; we fall 



RATIONAL THEOLOGY— LORD HERBERT I2£ 

into error only by neglecting to use the touchstone with 
which nature has supplied us. 

'For I boldly say that there have been, and are now, men, 
Churches and schools, stuffed with bagatelles, which have 
introduced into succeeding centuries impostures and fables . . . 
having no other foundation than true-seeming stories, or some 
rude and impertinent reasoning; a thing which would never 
have happened if my method had been followed.' 

'The common notions are the principles against which it is 
not permissible to dispute, or indeed they are that part of science 
which nature has given us, according to her first intention. It 
is in these notions, as I have many times said, that we see shining 
a gleam of the divine wisdom, when we separate them from the 
impurity of opinions.' 

We, who at this distance of time and for our particular 
present purpose read these older writers, not in order to 
agree or disagree with them, but in order to watch their 
mental behaviour, do not need to ask Lord Herbert by 
what criterion he can infallibly distinguish a 'common 
notion' from an 'impure opinion'. A common notion 
was a notion of the kind which, to a man of his type of 
culture and at his particular stage of civilisation, seemed 
indisputably 'true' because it satisfied his deepest needs. 
An 'impure' opinion was one which disappointed or 
thwarted those particular needs. 

What, we next proceed to ask, are the common notions 
which will serve us in the sphere of religion, and by whose 
means we may rise above the brawling of creed and sect? 
Herbert is particularly precise in his answer to this ques- 
tion. We must seek the required religious formulation in 
the two familiar ways — first, by the study of comparative 
religion : 

'Religion is a common notion, for there has never been a 
century nor any nation without religion. We must therefore 
see what universal consent has brought to light in religion, and 
compare all that we find on this subject, so as to receive as 



126 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

common notions all the things which are recognisably present 
and constant in the true religion.' x 

And secondly, there is the oracle within, whose deliver- 
ances really render superfluous all this laborious study: 

'Nay, if you desire a more expeditious method, I will give it 
to you: Retire into yourself and enter into your own faculties; 
you will find there God, virtue and the other universal and 
eternal truths.' 

The discovery of the fundamental religious notions 
common to mankind is indispensably necessary, he con- 
tinues (in the concluding section of the De Veritate), since 
only thus can we defend ourselves against priestcraft — of 
which Herbert is evidently a sworn foe: 

'For what is vulgarly spoken about implicit Faith, both 
among us and in the remotest provinces of foreign lands, is of 
no service to us in this discussion. As for instance when we 
are told that human reason is blind, that it ought to yield to 
Faith, that the Church (which cannot err) has the right to pre- 
scribe divine worship, and that, in consequence, we must follow 
her in all things; that no man should trust so far to the resources 
of his intelligence as to dare to examine the power and authority 
of Prelates, and of those who declare the word of God; that 
there are good reasons for all that is preached (although it sur- 
passes the reach of the human mind) which are so true that one 
should rather adore than examine them; that God can do all 
this, and greater things. For all these arguments, and many 
others like them, which are used according to the diversity of 
times and places, are as proper for establishing a false religion as 
the true one, since there is no impostor who cannot use similar 
language to persuade men to believe his reveries, and to estab- 
lish his imaginary laws. So that if we do not make plain the 
path to Truth by means of the common notions ... I see not 
that one could not establish any opinion one liked. Indeed 
whatever may be said by those who employ ambiguous and 
Lesbian rules in matters of faith in order to establish their doc- 
trine, they are nevertheless just like those who, in order to 

1 This Lord Herbert attempted to carry out in his book De Religione 
Gentilium. 



RATIONAL THEOLOGY — LORD HERBERT 1 27 

succour the poor wayfarers to whom they have given black eyes, 
immediately promise, with singular courtesy, to lead them into 
the right path. But the truth is far otherwise, for the sovereign 
Judge will not call us to account for what we have done on 
some one else's authority: each will answer for himself. That 
is why we must establish preambles and foundations of religion 
by the light of the universal wisdom, to the end that whatever 
is added afterwards at the veritable dictation of Faith may re- 
semble the roofs of houses, which rest upon and follow the 
foundations.' 

We come then, at length, to the list of common notions 
which Herbert feels, after studying all the accessible reli- 
gions and consulting his own heart, to be the quintessence 
of all religious belief. He formulates them in five 
headings: 

1. ' That there is a Supreme Power. * 

' We call then God, him who has received so many names 
amongst all sorts of nations.' 

He is Eternal, Blessed, Sovereignly Good, the Author 
and Finisher of all things (at least of all things that are 
good), and he is the ' milieu ' in which all things subsist. 
Besides this universal Divine Providence there is also 
'particular' providence, as is proved by the 

'sentiment of divine aid which commonly assists us, when we 
seek it in the greatest extremities.' 

How completely valid this sense of inner assurance was to 
Herbert himself is vividly seen in the incident he relates 
at the close of his Autobiography, in which the vanity and 
egoism which are so pleasantly conspicuous all through 
that book almost reach the sublime. Throughout his 
career Herbert had, according to his own account, been 
favoured in exceptional degree by the great and the fair. 
One supreme favour had as yet, however, been with- 
held from him: he had not hitherto received any direct 
testimony of appreciation from the Deity, on whose behalf 



128 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

he had written the De Veritate. This favour was now to 
be vouchsafed to him. The book had been read in manu- 
script and commended by no less a man than Grotius, yet 
Herbert was uncertain whether to publish it. He felt that 
his work was revolutionary in its methods and aims, and 
he feared general censure. One day, while he was in this 
state of hesitancy: 

'One fair day in summer, my casement being opened towards 
the South, the sun shining clear and no wind stirring, I took my 
book De Veritate in my hand, and kneeling on my knees, de- 
voutly said these words: O thou Eternal God, Author of the 
light which now shines upon me, and giver of all inward illumin- 
ations, I do beseech thee of thy infinite goodness to pardon a 
greater request than a sinner ought to make; I am not satisfied 
enough whether I shall publish this book De Veritate; if it be 
for thy glory, I beseech thee give me some sign from heaven; 
if not I shall suppress it. I had no sooner spoken these words, 
but a loud though gentle noise came from the heavens (for it 
was like nothing on earth) which did so comfort and cheer me, 
that I took my petition as granted, and that I had the sign I 
demanded, whereupon also I resolved to print my book: this 
(how strange soever it may seem) I protest before the Eternal 
God is true, neither am I any way superstitiously deceived here- 
in, since I did not only clearly hear the noise, but in the serenest 
sky that I ever saw, being without all cloud, did to my thinking 
see the place from whence it came.' l 

God is also Just, and Wise; He is just, for not only the 
common notions, but also history and experience prove 
that 'all things are administered with piety and justice, 
although we do not know the causes and the reasons'. 
He is wise, 'for he not only makes to appear the gleams of 
his wisdom in the attributes mentioned, but also in his 
works, in which it shines wondrously'. The attributes of 
Omnipotence and of Liberty are questioned by some, but 
that of Infinity, Herbert thinks, is proved 'by the infinity 
of space, which God surpasses as comprising all things, for 

1 Lord Herbert's Autobiography, concluding pages. 



RATIONAL THEOLOGY— LORD HERBERT 1 29 

the common notion teaches us that God is above and 
beyond all things '. The notion of the infinity of space, 
first celebrated in the previous century by Bruno, was of 
course an essential part of the new world-picture which, in 
our period, was replacing the Ptolemaic : 

'As for the attributes which are rejected by our enquiry, they 
are those which ascribe to God some novelty, or which attribute 
to him corporality, multitude and particularity, or which assert 
that he damns men for his sole pleasure; for such a God is 
nothing but a pure idol of the imagination, in which alone it 
subsists.' 

2. ' That this Sovereign Power must be worshipped? 
Common consent ordains this, although men differ as 

to the means. Some religious cult of one kind or another 
is found everywhere. Herbert postulates this as a funda- 
mental principle, and concludes from it that religion is the 
distinguishing characteristic of mankind. Those who 
appear to be atheists are generally those who, disgusted 
at the horrible things attributed to God by deluded men, 
prefer believing in no God to believing in this one. 
Whereas, were the divine attributes rightly conceived, 
such people would rather be in the mood to believe at all 
costs; so that even if there were no God they would 
wish there were one. 

3. ' That the good ordering or disposition of the faculties of 
man constitutes the principal or best part of divine worship, 
and that this has always been believed? 

About ceremonies men have disputed, but about the 
necessity for good conduct there has been a universal con- 
sensus. Piety and holiness of life are forms of worship, 
for they naturally produce love towards God and faith 
in him. We have, it is true, our bodily nature; but 
nature has implanted in us a taste for virtue, so that 
our souls may be gradually detached from earthly 



130 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

delights, and dwell in the constant enjoyment of inner 
tranquillity. 

4. ''That all vices and crimes should be expiated and 
effaced by repentance? 

Predestinarian doctrines which imply the futility of 
repentance are inconsistent with divine goodness and 
justice. 

5. 'That there are rewards and punishments after this 

life: 

* Every religion, all sorts of laws and of philosophy, and, 
what is more, Conscience [my italics], teach openly or implicitly 
that we shall be punished or rewarded after this life.' 

'Thus it appears,' he concludes, 'that the common notions 
which recognise a sovereign Author of all things, which bid us 
honour him, lead holy lives, repent of our crimes, and expect 
reward or punishment after death, come from God, and are 
imprinted in the whole human race, and that those which pre- 
sume plurality of Gods, which allow sin to remain unrepented 
of, and which waver as to the eternal state of the soul, are not 
common notions, nor truths. All religion is not good, . . . and 
we are not claiming that a man can be saved in all sorts of reli- 
gions — for how can it be that he who believes more than he 
need, and does less than he ought, can be saved? But we gladly 
believe that in every religion, and even in each conscience, 
whether by grace or by nature, a man has means sufficient to 
render himself acceptable to God.' 

Herbert has, in effect, defined some of the principal tenets 
of what came later to be commonly known as 'natural 
religion'. This is the archetypal religion imprinted in all 
men in all times and places, of which all particular reli- 
gious cults are derivatives. Ceremonies and usages super- 
imposed on these primary common notions may have their 
use in religion, but they are not essential. The simple 
articles of natural religion, which underlie all particular 
rites and sacraments, contain all that is 'necessary for 



RATIONAL THEOLOGY — LORD HERBERT 131 

salvation', and so may be used as the basis for religious 
' comprehension ' . 

'These then are the common notions on which the universal 
Church is founded; for it is not the Church which is built of 
stone and lime, or even of marble, which is infallible, nor that 
which men establish by words or writing, mingling therewith 
somewhat of their own opinions and giving their support there- 
to; neither is it that which fights under some particular flag, or 
which comprises a certain number of persons in some corner of 
the earth or in a certain century; but it is simply the doctrine 
of the common notions, which embraces all sorts of places and 
times, and all men, which ought to be called Catholic, since it is 
this alone which explains the universal divine providence and 
wisdom, and which shows the reason why we address God as 
the common Father of the universe; it is this Church outside 
which there is no salvation — nay, all the praises attributed to 
"the Church" belong to it, and each of the other Churches is by 
so much the less true, and the more subject to error, as it is 
further separated from this.' 

Lord Herbert is not primarily concerned in this work 
with ' Revelation ', but his few concluding remarks on the 
subject are of interest as illustrating one of the methods 
by which the rationalising seventeenth century dealt with 
so venerable a concept. That any truth could be 'given' 
by sheer force of supernatural authority, so that it must 
be believed without being understood, was a proposition 
which became less and less acceptable to most minds as 
the century proceeded. The notion of Revelation, how- 
ever, was too strongly embedded in traditional ways of 
thought to be dismissed; it required to be elaborately 
explained away. It could, for instance, be identified with 
the process by which the common notions themselves (the 
starting-point of all reasoning) are imprinted in our 
minds, ' Reason ' thus becoming, in the phrase of Locke, 
'natural revelation'. Herbert, though he approaches this 
point of view, seems to understand by revelation some 



132 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

process or experience (akin to the above-mentioned com- 
munication of the divine imprimatur for De Veritate) by 
which we become more than ordinarily certain of any- 
thing. His retaining of the word cannot conceal his entire 
alteration of its usual meaning. The revelation, to be 
genuine, must be made to oneself \ what is 'revealed' on 
some one else's authority is only story or tradition. We 
must, moreover, have prepared ourselves for its reception 
by prayers and vows ; and the revelation, when it comes, 
must bear the hall-mark of authenticity — that is, it must 
persuade us to something which we know (on other 
grounds) to be 'good'. The recipient of a revelation, too, 
should be able to attest (as unfalteringly as Herbert did 
of his celestial noise) that he had experienced a 'particu- 
lar movement of God' towards him. 'To state the whole 
in a few words', he concludes, virtually, though not quite, 
breaking through from the theological thicket into con- 
genial naturalism: 

''every divine and happy sentiment that we feel within our con- 
science is a revelation [my italics], although properly speaking 
there are no other revelations than those which the inner sense 
knows to be above the ordinary providence of things.' 



CHAPTER VIII 

Rational Theology 
(continued) 

THE CAMBRIDGE PLATONISTS 



THE characteristic task of a century which was 
gravitating steadily towards 'enlightenment' was 
to give the true, the 'philosophical' account of 
matters which had hitherto been misconceived by both 
the learned and the vulgar. In the field of theology, 
then, we must expect to find the rationalisers largely 
concerned with putting an idea, and abstraction, where 
formerly there had been a picture. For only the ab- 
stract, only what could be conceptually stated, could 
claim to be real', all else was shadow, image, or at least 
'type' or symbol. As we have seen, the urge towards 
such restatements came both from the main intellectual 
movement of the time, and — in the case of religion — 
from the need to transcend controversy. It is significant 
that in the seventeenth century most of the religious 
rationalising is carried on conservatively; there is no 
appearance, and usually no intention, of destructive criti- 
cism. The assumption always is that the core of religious 
truth is sound, if only it can be freed from the traditional 
accretions. The Cambridge Platonists were, in their vary- 
ing degree, deeply religious and indeed saintly men ; and 
their treatment of older conceptions was ruled throughout 
by their desire to deepen, while clarifying, the religious 
consciousness of their time. In so far as they spoke a new 
or at least an unfamiliar language, it was because they felt 
that the life of the spirit was perishing in the spent air 

133 



134 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

of polemic. Their aim was not to destroy, but to con- 
serve and reinforce from within what they felt to be vital 
in the religious tradition. Accordingly their technique is, 
not to confront the cloud of credal warfare, but to 'put it 
by'; to dwell always upon the real, the saving truths, and 
by simply not using the weapons of controversy to let 
them silently rust away. For this purpose it was con- 
venient to change the linguistic currency: to speak of 
religious matters in terms other than those in constant 
use, and (what is presupposed by this) to think of them 
in modes whose very possibility, as it were, showed up 
much contemporary thought as inadequate and crude. 
No finer storehouse of such terms and such ways of 
thought existed, or none was so available or so powerful 
in the seventeenth century, as the Platonic and neo- 
Platonic philosophy. Here was a system, essentially reli- 
gious in spirit, which taught the sole reality of the spiri- 
tual world and the immortality of the soul, which pictured 
life as the soul's striving for heaven and prescribed a 
regimen for its upward ascent: a system too which was 
not only venerated on its own account by the cultured, 
but which in its long and intimate association with Chris- 
tianity had flowed into its stream and become part of it. 
The language of Platonism at that time commanded assent 
with an authority second only to that of Scripture, and to 
use it in religious exhortation, therefore, was the happiest 
available method of implying, without aggressively pro- 
claiming, that there were other ways of faith besides those 
laid down in the current formulae. Salter, the eighteenth 
century editor of Whichcote, tells us that it was Which- 
cote's aim, in his Cambridge preaching, 'to preserve a 
spirit of sober piety and rational religion in the University 
and Town of Cambridge, in opposition to the fanatic 
enthusiasm and senseless canting then in vogue.' There 
was, I think, less of 'opposition' in Whichcote than 



RATIONAL THEOLOGY— THE PLATONISTS 1 35 

Salter's eighteenth century mind sees in him. Burnet 
expresses his temper more nearly: 

' He was much for liberty of conscience, and being disgusted 
with the dry systematical way of those times, he studied to raise 
those who conversed with him to a nobler set of thoughts, and 
to consider religion as a seed of deiform nature (to use one of 
his own phrases). In order to this, he set young students much 
on reading the ancient philosophers: chiefly Plato, Tully and 
Plotin; and on considering the Christian religion as a doctrine 
sent from God both to elevate and sweeten human nature; in 
which he was a great example, as well as a wise and kind 
instructor.' * 

The Cambridge Platonists were mainly Puritan in 
affinity, as indeed the connection of several of them with 
Emmanuel College (then regarded as a 'seminary of 
Puritans') shows clearly enough. They may therefore be 
said to illustrate, together with such figures as Milton and 
George Fox, the tendency of advanced Protestant thought, 
after passing through its dogmatic post-Reformation 
phase, to reveal once again its original rationalising 
temper, and to fall thus into line with the general move- 
ment of the century. The Platonists are celebrated for 
their appeals to ' Reason ' : Reason, which in the text that 
Whichcote especially never tires of quoting, is 'the candle 
of the Lord', and to follow which, John Smith declares, is 
to follow God. But we must be careful not to misconstrue 
the significance of 'Reason' as the Platonists commonly 
use the term. 'Follow Reason' was an injunction having, 
from their standpoint, a twofold application to the special 
needs of the age. It meant, on the one hand, 'think philo- 
sophically' — regard as real only such things as were real 
to Plato. But it was no mere intellectual emancipation 
which they advocated. They would have less faithfully 
interpreted their master had they not gone on to insist, as 

1 Burnet, History of His Own Times, vol. i. pp. 186-7 ( I 7 2 4 e d-)* 



136 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

they did, that the pursuit of ' Truth ' involved the purifica- 
tion of the heart and the disciplining of the will ; only the 
pure in heart could see God. 'Nothing is the true im- 
provement of our rational faculties*, said Whichcote, 'but 
the exercise of the several virtues of sobriety, modesty, 
gentleness, humility, obedience to God and charity to 
men.' x Thus as philosophers the Platonists found in the 
metaphysics of Plato a defence against Hobbesian materi- 
alism, while as moralists and preachers they found in him 
authority for their characteristic message, that conduct 
mattered more than creed. 

It is on this latter side of their work that I want 
primarily to dwell. The metaphysical work of Cud worth 
and More is interesting, and will be referred to briefly 
later. But for the purposes of this essay the Platonists 
are significant mainly because they employ seventeenth 
century criteria of the Real towards the restatement of 
religious belief. We find them here (and the Sermons of 
Whichcote and John Smith are especially relevant to our 
enquiry) playing their part in the movement towards 'en- 
lightenment' by constantly substituting an entelechy^ an 
idea, or a state of mind for one or other of the dramatic or 
pictorial representations of the traditional scheme. Take, 
for instance, the doctrine of Salvation. The popular con- 
ception of salvation was of course inseparably bound up 
with all the imagery, biblical and theological, associated 
with the Fall and the Atonement. The Platonists were 
opposed to many of the implications of the Fall doctrine, 
in particular to the customary depreciation of human 
nature and human Reason by orthodox divines. With 
their sense of the normality, the 'naturalness' of the 
spiritual processes, they could not accept the view, ex- 
pressed in the traditional insistence upon supernatural 
grace, that there was no 'natural light' left to the sons of 

1 Quoted by Powicke, The Cambridge Platonists, p. 47. 



RATIONAL THEOLOGY— THE PLATONISTS 1 37 

Adam since the Fall. The God who was Reason deified 
would not have cast man off so utterly. Neither had 
'revelation' ceased after the Apostolic age, and conse- 
quently it was not confined to the pages of Holy Writ. 
God is the perpetual source of illumination to all who can 
live the life of Reason, and the function of Scripture is to 
confirm the truths which are discoverable by the light of 
Nature. 'The written word of God', says Whichcote, 'is 
not the first or only discovery of the duty of man. It doth 
gather and repeat and reinforce and charge upon us the 
scattered and neglected principles of God's creation.' 1 
In particular, as might be expected, they abhorred the 
doctrines of predestination, especially what Henry More 
called 'the Black Doctrine of absolute Reprobation'. 
Their whole emphasis was upon the power of the indi- 
vidual to raise himself unceasingly towards perfection by 
living after the Spirit. Traditional teaching about Salva- 
tion evoked images of Heaven and the hereafter, of redemp- 
tion and justification in its various forms ; the Platonists 
(like the Quakers in this as in other ways) speak rather of 
'here' and 'now'. 'Give me religion that doth attain real 
effects.' 2 The righteous are to become, in this life, par- 
takers of the divine nature. Salvation is indeed the pur- 
pose of the Gospel, but salvation is to be conceived less as 
an ultimate destination of the soul beyond the horizons of 
this life than as a present approximation towards moral 
purification. To be 'saved' is to be 'good'. This teach- 
ing may be said to represent the application within the 
spiritual sphere of Bacon's scientific method. The pur- 
pose of science is to know the real world and master it, 
but for centuries men have wasted their powers in vain 
speculations. The purpose of religion is to produce 
men of godlike temper and lives {'real effects'), but for 

1 Tulloch, Rational Theology and Christian Philosophy, etc., vol. ii. p. 100. 

2 Whichcote, quoted by Powicke, op. cit., p. 80. 



138 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

centuries they have been wrangling over creeds and forms, 
and never so hotly as since the so-called Reformation. 
The aim of Whichcote and Smith in their preaching was 
to 'call men off from dogmas and barren speculation', and 
to urge them to fix upon the 'Real'; that is, to devote 
themselves, in a spirit of chastened 'reasonableness', to 
the pursuit of sweetness and light. They reject no article 
of the Faith, but they shift the emphasis of exhortation, 
affirming values where orthodoxy affirmed facts. 

2. John Smith's Discourses. 

I can think of no better means of illustrating the 
methods of the Platonists than by giving some account 
of the Discourses of John Smith. This volume is likely, 
I think, to outlive many of the more formal treatises by 
these authors. It contains the sermon of which Matthew 
Arnold (himself an apostle of Hellenism, though in 
altered circumstances) wrote: 'I have often thought that 
if candidates for Holy Orders were simply, in preparing 
for their examination, to read and digest Smith's great 
Discourse on The Excellency and Nobleness of True 
Religion . . . and nothing further except the Bible, we 
might have, perhaps, a hope of at last getting, as our 
national guides in religion, a clergy which could tell its 
bearings and steer its way', etc. These same Discourses 
have been called, by a living Cambridge Platonist, 'the 
best University Sermons that I know'. 1 I shall not 
scruple to quote Smith freely, since his prose is frequently 
of rare excellence, and moreover, his exact tone and 
quality can only be conveyed in his own words. 

(i) The Platonist, the anti-scholastic and the moralist in 
Smith all appear in his first Discourse, Concerning the True 
Way or Method of attaining to Divine Knowledge. Know- 
ledge of God is knowledge of what is most Real. But 

1 Dean Inge, The Platonic Tradition, p. 58. 



RATIONAL THEOLOGY— JOHN SMITH I 39 

though this knowledge is of the spirit and not of the 
senses, it is not abstract theoretical knowledge; it can, in 
fact, only be described by metaphors derived from sensa- 
tion. We must rise above the life of the senses to know 
God, but in so doing we must reach, not a barren notional 
idea of him, but a higher and spiritual kind of 'sensation*, 
a noesis which is superior to discourse. Divine 'know- 
ledge' then, in effect, is the mystical experience, wherein 
we become one with the real. It is expressly distinguished 
as a form of experience, from the 'theology' of the schools: 

'It is but a thin, aiery knowledge that is got by meer Specula- 
tion, which is usher'd in by Syllogisms and Demonstrations ; but 
that which springs forth from true Goodness . . . brings such a 
Divine light into the Soul, as is more clear and convincing than 
any Demonstration. The reason why, notwithstanding all our 
acute reasons and subtile disputes, Truth prevails no more in 
the world, is, we so often disjoyn Truth and true Goodness, 
which in themselves can never be disunited.' x 

'Were I indeed to define Divinity, I should rather call it a 
Divine life, than a Divine Science; it being something rather to 
be understood by a Spiritual sensation, than by any Verbal 
description? 2 

Learned as these preachers are, 'close up those barren 
leaves' is one of their constant refrains. 

'To seek our Divinity meerly in Books and Writings, is to 
seek the living among the dead: we doe but in vain seek God 
many times in these, where his Truth too often is not so much 
enshrin'd as entomb' 'd: no; intra te quaere Deum, seek for God 
within thine own soul; he is best discern'd voepa €Tra(f>r}, as 
Plotinus phraseth it, by an intellectual touch of him : we must 
see with our eyes, and hear with our ears, and our hands must 
handle the word of life. . . . David, when he would teach us 
how to know what the divine Goodness is, calls not for Specula- 
tion but Sensation, Tast and see how good the Lord is.' 3 

Henry More, testifying to the same purpose, relates 

1 Discourse 1., p. 4 (1673 edition). 2 ibid., p. 1. 

3 ibid., p. 3. 



I40 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

how at the end of a period of intense study be experienced 
a sudden slackening of his thirst for intellectual know- 
ledge, followed by a 'conversion' which brought with it 
the real illumination of soul-knowledge : 

'Whether the Knowledge of Things [with this question the 
realisation had come to him] was really that supreme Felicity 
of Man, or something Greater and more Divine was : Or, sup- 
posing it to be so, whether it was to be acquir'd by such an 
Eagerness and Intentness in the reading of Authors, and Con- 
templating of Things ; or by the purging of the Mind from all 
sorts of Vices whatsoever.' x 

In all this do we not recognise the Cartesian self-suffi- 
ciency, the Cartesian rejection of authority and reliance 
upon inward certitude? It was the corollary to this cen- 
tury's rejection of the errors of the past, that it should find 
within the soul the Candle of the Lord, whose beams, if 
only they were free to shine abroad, would show up a 
divine universe in a divine light. In thus identifying 
religious knowledge with religious experience, the Platon- 
ists found a means, congenial to the temper of the age, of 
superseding both scholasticism on the one hand, and 
popular picture-thinking on the other. The concept 
'God', like any other, must be realised; each man must 
make God real by becoming godlike himself. For John 
Smith there was no doubt as to what it meant to be god- 
like, or wherein consisted this holy life which is the ' best 
and most compendious way to a right belief. In the 
seventeenth century no prophets of 'integration' spoke 
'in defence of sensuality'. The Platonic, the Catholic and 
the Puritan traditions all united in representing the good 
life as the endeavour 'more and more to withdraw our- 
selves from these Bodily things, to set our soul as free as 
may be from its miserable slavery to this base Flesh'. 2 

1 See The Philosophical Poems of H. More, ed. Bullough, Introd. xvii, xxxi, 
xxxv, etc. 

2 Smith, op. cit., p. 16. 



RATIONAL THEOLOGY— JOHN SMITH 141 

One aspired towards the state in which (to quote from a 
poet of kindred temper) — 

'the light of sense 
Goes out, but with a flash that has revealed 
The invisible world.' 1 

'We must shut the Eyes of Sense, and open that brighter 
Eye of our Understandings.' Smith declares, it is true, 
that 'when Reason once is raised by the mighty force of 
the Divine Spirit into a converse with God, it is turn'd 
into Sense* ; but 'Reason in its most exalted mood' is not, 
for him, as it was for Wordsworth, a definition of Imagin- 
ation which could be used in defence of poetry. It was 
a defence of the mystical experience, and this can, of 
course, furnish subject-matter for the highest poetry. But 
Smith's 'Sense' is a very different thing from that contact 
with 'nature's living images' which for Wordsworth, and 
probably for most poets, is a necessary condition of 
poetical creativeness. What he and his like call the 
'Imagination' is the image-making faculty — a thing of 
earthly rather than heavenly affinity — which continually 
throws up a stream of phantoms which come between the 
mind and the object of contemplation. Here on earth we 
see but in a glass darkly, not in speculo lucido : ' Our own 
Imaginative Powers, which are perpetually attending the 
highest acts of our Souls, will be breathing a gross dew 
upon the pure Glass of our Understandings, and so sully 
and besmear it, that we cannot see the Image of the 
Divinity sincerely in it.' 2 Imagination, according to this 
view, is a weakness incident to the flesh ; it must be trans- 
cended as far as may be, or used, if at all, only to body 
forth what eye hath not seen, nor ear heard. 

So certain, so indubitable did the nature of virtue 
appear to these thinkers that they were able, in the manner 
of their time, to regard the notion of it as one of those 

1 Wordsworth's Prelude, vi. 600. a Smith, op. cit,, p. 21. 



142 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

communes notitiae inscribed upon our souls. Enlighten- 
ment had not yet proceeded too far; and it was the good 
fortune of the age that it could rationalise away the vain 
imaginations of the past, and yet, on looking into its own 
heart, find written there, as by the hand of 'nature', all 
the old certainties. 

'We want not so much Means of knowing what we ought to 
doe, as Wills to doe that which we may know.' 

(ii) Some further points of theology are treated in the 
usual explanatory and 'realising' manner in the Discourse 
Concerning the Nature and Existence of God. God's exist- 
ence is demonstrated, according to the method of 'natural 
theology', from the order of nature on the one hand, and 
the moral sense of man on the other. Although the 
Heavens declare the glory of God, the most clear and 
distinct imprint of him is to be found in the rational soul 
of man. Smith offers us here, indeed, a version of the 
'ontological' proof, deducing God from the consideration 
of certain characteristics of the human mind. We are 
conscious of our own rationality, but we know also that 
our souls only participate in it, and aie not identical with 
it. Our minds, too, 'are so framed, as not to admit of any 
other than One Infinite source of all that Reason and Under- 
standing which themselves partake of, in which they live, 
move and have their Being'. 1 Similarly our yearning for 
a summum bonum presupposes a real Supreme Good as its 
object, a good outside and above ourselves. This, as 
might be supposed, is the aspect of the divine nature which 
Smith is most concerned to emphasise. Our understand- 
ings may realise God as Power and Reason, our wills and 
affections realise him as Goodness and Beauty. 

' He is not onely the Eternal Reason, that Almighty Mind and 
Wisdom which our Understandings converse with; but he is 

1 Smith, op. cit., pp. 118 ff. 



RATIONAL THEOLOGY— JOHN SMITH 1 43 

also that unstained Beauty and Supreme Good which our Wills 
are perpetually catching after: and wheresoever we find true 
Beauty ', Love and Goodness, we may say, Here or there is God. y x 

Consonant with this account of God is Smith's further 
teaching that ' Heaven ' is to be understood as Happiness, 
which again means approximation to God; Hell is 
Misery, or estrangement from him. Again, anxious 
always to substitute rational conceptions for anthropo- 
morphic imaginings, Smith insists that we shall not think 
of God as the omnipotent Lawgiver, constituting right 
and wrong by the mere fiat of his will. 'The Primitive 
rules of God's Oeconomy in the World', he says, are 'not 
the sole Results of an Absolute Will, but the sacred 
Decrees of Reason and Goodness.' 2 We should hold, 
not that what God decrees is right, but that God decrees 
what is right. The general significance of this teaching, 
and its relevance for our present study, are, I think, very 
great. For we here see Smith, in the effort to make 'real' 
the substance of theology, finding the associations of the 
word ' God ' itself an obstacle to his purpose. God ordains 
what is right; then, if it was already right 'in the nature 
of things', antecedently to God's decree, what need for 
the divine decree? The concept 'right' has in effect been 
deified, made antecedent to 'God'. Deeply ingrained in 
the minds of the Platonists, and of the greater number of 
their contemporaries as well, was the assumption that con- 
cepts alone are real, and that whatever is concretely 
imagined is phantasmal. To think of God without allow- 
ing the busy imagination to stain his white radiance with 
its phantasms — this was to be the effort of the enlightened 
believer. If one must use images — and it was hard to 
avoid them— one might think of God as Light, or the 
source of Light (a favourite figure with John Smith). 
But, as we have seen (and it was this teaching which saved 

1 ibid., p. 132. 2 ibid., heading of ch. viii. 



144 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

the Platonists from barren intellectual]' sm), better than all 
thinking about God was to feel him, to 'know', and as it 
were to be him ; thus restoring upon a higher plane that 
'sense' which could only delude upon the lower. Written 
theology or written poetry must needs be made up of 
imaginings; one could, however, live one's poetry and 
one's divinity. 

If matters stood thus with the central idea of all reli- 
gion, the idea of God, it is no wonder that much else in so 
composite a thing as traditional Christianity needed the 
elucidating touch. In a Discourse entitled A Christian's 
Conflicts and Conquests^ or a Discourse concerning The Devil's 
active Enmity and continual Hostility against Man (one of a 
series of sermons against witchcraft preached annually, by 
University Statute, at Huntingdon), Smith turns his atten- 
tion to the Kingdom of Darkness, and deals with it in his 
accustomed fashion. Rejecting no jot or tittle of the 
popular mythology, he unobtrusively substitutes, at every 
turn, the more ' adequate ' notion . The devils, he declares, 

' fell from God not so much by a local descent as by a Mental 
apostasie and dissimilitude to God. . . . Wheresoever there are 
any in a disposition to sin against God, wheresoever there are 
any capable of a Temptation or Diabolical impression, here 
and there are they.' 1 

* When we say, The Devil is continually busie with us, I 
mean not only some Apostate spirit as one particular Being, but 
that spirit of Apostasie which is lodged in all men's natures; . . . 
as the Scripture speaks of Christ not onely as a Particular person, 
but as a Divine Principle in holy Souls.' 2 

'Wickedness is the Form and Entelech of all the wicked 
spirits : it is the difference of a name rather than any proper 
difference of natures that is between the Devil and Wicked 
men.' 

As conversing with God implies not change of place but 
participation with his nature, so converse with the Devil 

1 ibid., p. 448. * ibid., p. 451. 



RATIONAL THEOLOGY— JOHN SMITH 1 45 

is 'not so much by a mutual local presence* as by imitation 
of a wicked 'nature'. 

*God is but One, and his Name One . . . and where we find 
Wisdom, Justice, Loveliness, Goodness, Love and Glory in 
their highest elevations and most unbounded dimensions, That 
is He : and where we find any true participations of these, there 
is a true Communication of God ; and a defection from these 
is the Essence of Sin and the Foundation of Hell.' * 

The trouble with the popular picture-thinking about these 
matters is that it enables men to love 'God' or hate 'The 
Devil ' merely as names or phantoms, without having any 
'clear or distinct apprehensions' (observe the Cartesian 
phrase) of what it is that they should be loving or hating. 
Thus they often quarrel with the Devil in notion, while 
their hearts comply with 'all that which the Devil is'. It 
should be clearly understood that Smith had apparently 
no thought of denying that the Devil was a particular 
Apostate spirit, any more than that Christ was a par- 
ticular historical person. The situation in his time (it was 
also Milton's time) was chat 'enlightenment' had pro- 
ceeded as it were half-way only, so that it was possible 
for the religious to relegate the traditional mythology to a 
limbo of the mind, according to it a kind of poetic belief, 
while dwelling with the daylight part of their minds upon 
the rational interpretations. 

(iii) Having given his discourses upon the principles 
of natural theology, Smith died, so his editor informs us, 
before completing his projected series upon Revealed 
Religion. It is hard to imagine, however, that if we had 
possessed these unwritten sermons they would have dis- 
closed any unsuspected aspects of Smith's mind. We 
have, moreover, his short treatise Of Prophecy to indicate 
how he would have approached the topics of Revelation. 
In perusing this we again experience the familiar sense 

1 ibid., p. 454. 



I46 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

that a new ideology is being quietly substituted for an old 
without any avowed departure from orthodoxy. The 
technique of this process can in this case be partly de- 
scribed. It includes the following devices: {a) Passing 
over without mention those aspects of a question which 
are usually most discussed. Here, for instance, there is 
little or nothing said about the 'scheme' of prophecy, 
culminating in the Messiah, (b) Obliterating, almost 
casually, the very distinction in question (between 
'natural' and 'revealed') by showing that 'natural' know- 
ledge is itself a species of revelation. Smith argues that 
what the prophetic inspiration often does is simply to 
arouse a livelier realisation of the 'Truths of Natural 
Inscription', (c) Demonstrating that Scripture is so 
written as to be adapted to 'vulgar apprehensions'. It 
has already been pointed out how vital an issue Scrip- 
tural interpretation necessarily became in this century 
which was both Protestant and philosophical. A book 
like the Bible, containing so much poetry, history, legend 
and allegory, and so little that could be called 'philo- 
sophy', clearly needed a great deal of firm 'explanation', 
since it was also indisputably the word of God. I have 
indicated above x how this was attempted ; the Scriptures 
were written in the 'language of accommodation ' : 

'Truth is content, when it comes into the world, to wear our 
mantles, to learn our language, to conform itself as it were to 
our dress and fashions : ... it speaks with the most Idiotical 
sort of men in the most Idiotical way, and becomes all things to 
all men, as every sonne of Truth should doe, for their good.' 2 

In other words, Scripture speaks to us in type, symbol 
and parable; in it 'the Philosophical or Physical nature 
and literal veritie of things cannot so reasonably be sup- 
posed to be set forth to us, as the Moral and Theological'. 
It was a queer stroke of historical irony which compelled 

1 See Chapter iv. 2 Smith, op. cit., p. 165. 



RATIONAL THEOLOGY— JOHN SMITH 1 47 

these philosophers to accept, as the repository of neces- 
sary Truth, a book which needed so much 'interpreting* 
before it would yield up its precious burden. Even if the 
Bible had not become a danger-zone on account of sec- 
tarian disputes, it would still have been a natural impulse, 
on the part of the Platonists, to 'set young students much 
on reading the ancient philosophers : chiefly Plato, Tully 
and Plotin'. (d) Establishing a series of distinctions 
separating true from false prophecy, or prophecy from 
dreams and ' enthusiastick impostures'. In doing this 
Smith sketches out, with the aid of Plato, the neo-Platon- 
ists and the Rabbinical commentators, a psychology of 
prophetic inspiration, which I will briefly summarise. 

Smith's general notion of prophecy is that it is a pro- 
cess whereby God ' flows in upon the minds of men '. But 
he distinguishes (following the Rabbinical tradition) 
several 'degrees of prophecy', (a) In its highest form — 
the gradus mosaicus— divine knowledge is conveyed by the 
direct illumination of the highest, or rational, faculty of 
the soul. Moses was a 'superior' prophet, because he 
was privileged to converse with God thus 'face to face*. 
Next below this comes (J?) the degree at which the reason 
is illuminated indirectly, through the medium of the 
'imagination' — the imagination being the 'stage' on 
which appear the 'images' which are to be allegorically 
and 'anagogically' interpreted. At this level the prophet 
is dealing, not with naked Truth, but with phantasms and 
simulacra depicted in his 'fancy' or 'imagination' (equi- 
valent terms), and he will accordingly also speak in 
figurative language ; but if he is a ' true ' prophet he will 
understand the truths so represented, and be able to inter- 
pret them. In (c) the lowest kind of prophesying (' divina- 
tion') the prophets, like Plato's soothsayers and poets, 
know not what they say: they are unable, as it were, to 
decode their own phantasms. This last group, then, in- 



I48 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

eludes all the pseudo-prophets who do actually, it seems, 
have their 'Phansies' excited, but do not reach 'a true 
understanding of things in their coherence and contex- 
ture'. 1 The inferiority of the mere 'imagination' to 
'Reason' could not be more emphatically stated: 'The 
Pseudo-Prophetical Spirit is seated onely in the Imagina- 
tive Powers and Faculties inferior to Reason ' ; whereas in 
the gradus mosakus 'all imagination ceaseth, and the Re- 
presentation of Truth descends not so low as the Imagina- 
tive part, but is made in the highest stage of Reason and 
Understanding'. Smith is the more concerned to show 
up the true nature of group (c), because in it are included 
all the ' Enthusiastical Impostors of our Age'. The grand 
distinction between the true prophecy and the false, or 
mere dream, is that the true never 'alienates the mind', 
but co-exists with clearness of reason and solidity of judg- 
ment; it informs and enlightens, whereas the false merely 
'ravishes'. The genuine prophet is convinced by the 
force and clearness of the influx; he knows he is not 
merely dreaming dreams because he intuitively appre- 
hends the communication as 'true'. Nevertheless the 
normal mode of communication was through 'dream' and 
'vision'. Smith will accept from tradition that 'angels' 
(rather than God himself directly) are probably the 'fur- 
nishers of the prophetical scene'. The acts and doings of 
the prophets themselves, as recorded in Scripture, are to 
be understood, except where there is unmistakable evid- 
ence to the contrary, as 'imaginary' and not historical. 
This Smith justifies by arguing that 

'The Prophetical scene or Stage upon which all apparitions 
were made to the Prophet, was his Imagination; and that there 
all those things which God would have revealed to him were 
acted over Symbolically, as in a Masque, in which divers persons 
are brought in, amongst which the prophet himself bears a part. 

1 ibid., p. 186. 



RATIONAL THEOLOGY— JOHN SMITH 1 49 

And therefore he, according to the exigency of this Dramatical 
apparatus, must, as the other Actors, perform his part. . . .* * 

He quotes approvingly a comment of Maimonides on one 
of the res gestae of the prophets — the shaving of Ezekiel's 
hair and beard. 'Far be it from God', says the Rabbi, 'to 
render his Prophets like to fools and drunken men ', there- 
fore, he infers, this and all suchlike actions are imaginary, 
i.e. 'done' only in a prophetic vision. Maimonides and 
several other mediaeval Rabbinical commentators are 
great favourites with Smith, who evidently found in them 
a mental constitution akin to his own. 

In much of this treatise Smith gives the impression 
thatheis dealing with comparatively uncongenial material. 
There is, however, another 'degree of Prophecy' of which 
he can speak with more of his characteristic warmth, be- 
cause it is more closely allied to the 'natural' illumination 
he knew and trusted. This is 'that degree of Prophecy- 
called Ruach Hakkodesh, i.e. the Holy Spirit'. It was 
this which inspired such books as the Psalms, the Pro- 
verbs, the Book of Job, and Ecclesiastes. Smith thinks 
the Jews ascribed this to the ' Spiritus Sanctus\ 'not be- 
cause it flows from the third Person of the Trinity (which 
I doubt they thought not of in this business), but because 
of the near afRnitie and alliance it hath with that Spirit 
of Holiness and true Goodness that alwaies lodgeth in 
the breasts of Good men*. In this way of Revelation 
there is no 'labour of the Imagination'; its recipients 
experienced the influx not with frenzy or vision, 'but 
while they were waking, and their senses were in their 
full vigour'. 

'This kind therefore of Divine Inspiration was alwaies more 
pacate and serene then the other of Prophesie, neither did it so 
much fatigate or act upon the Imagination. For though these 
Hagiographi or Holy writers ordinarily expressed themselves in 

1 ibid., p. 215. 



I^O THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

Parables and Similitudes, which is the proper work of Phansie, 
yet they seem onely to have made use of such a dress of language to 
set off their own sense of Divine things, which in itself was more 
naked and simple, the more advantagiously, as we see commonly 
in all other kind of Writings.' 1 

All that really distinguished this spirit of inspiration from 
the 'spirit of goodness' which habitually dwells within 
the good man's heart was the relative abruptness and 
'transport' of its advent; it was 'a kind of vital Form to 
that Light of divine Reason which they were perpetually 
possess'd of. The conditions necessary for the free 
flowing of the prophetic vein are 'alacrity', 'chearfulness', 
probity and piety, purity of heart, a 'serene and pacate' 
temper; for as the Zohar says, 'the divine presence does 
not reside with Sadness'. 2 Coleridge said that an 'un- 
happy man could not write poetry', and there are obvious 
analogies between the theories of poetic and prophetic 
inspiration. 

Reflection upon the drift of all that Smith has said 
seems to show that he has in effect written a 'natural 
history' of a supposedly supernatural process. True, the 
notion of divine inspiration clearly implies for him some- 
thing freely bestowed from outside us, but he feels no 
essential discontinuity between this and the process, uni- 
versally felt to be 'natural', whereby the mind is illumined 
by truth. The truest prophet is really the philosopher, 
who has 'a true understanding of things in their coher- 
ence and contexture'. It was this grasp of first principles 
which constituted the pre-eminence of Moses, and made 
him a veritable Platonic philosopher-king. For what was 
the true meaning of the face-to-face converse of Moses 
with God ? It consisted, not merely in the absence of the 
usual 'angelic mediation', but in the 'clearness and evi- 
dence of the Intellectual light wherein God appeared to 

1 ibid., p. 224 (my italics). a ibid., p. 239. 



RATIONAL THEOLOGY— JOHN SMITH l£l 

Moses'. God 'spoke' to him (i.e. truth flowed in upon 
him) 

'without any impressions or Images of things in his Imagina- 
tion in an Hieroglyphical way, as was wont to be in all Dreams 
and Visions; but by characterizing all immediately upon his 
Understanding: though otherwise much of the Law was indeed 
almost little more for the main scope and aim of it but an Em- 
blem or Allegory.' * 

Next below the philosopher-prophet who apprehends 
naked truth without the aid of hieroglyphics comes the 
allegorist (whether we call him 'prophet' or 'poet' matters 
little), he who sees and speaks in phantasms, but knows 
the abstract truths of which they are the images. Lastly, 
and least worthy, comes the poet-soothsayer, he who lives 
continually amongst the shadows in the den, and knows 
nothing of the realities which cast them. Taking the trea- 
tise as a whole, one can hardly doubt that it illustrates once 
again the seventeenth century effort to apply a 'philo- 
sophic ' test to traditional material, and to reject, as far as 
might be, whatever was thereby revealed to be 'fictitious'. 
I do not think (for a reason mentioned below) 2 that the 
work of the Platonists can be said to have undermined 
religion ; but their standards of reality did imply, at least 
in theory, a depreciation of the status of poetry. The 
reappearance in the later seventeenth century of the 
Platonic attitude towards 'phantasms' must be counted 
among the many forces, scientific, philosophic and other, 
which at that time were making poetic belief, as well as 
religious belief, increasingly difficult. In the Cambridge 
Platonists the spirit of Plato aids the spirit of Descartes in 
the task of reducing the imagery of religion to ' clear and 
distinct ideas'. 

(iv) I cannot leave this part of the subject without 

1 ibid., p. 255 (my italics). Smith is here quoting Philo. 
8 See p. 280. 



152 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

attempting in a few words to answer an important ques- 
tion still outstanding : How did this reduction of religious 
imagery affect the interpretation of the specific points 
which distinguish the Christian from other religions? 
What account would rational religion give of the ' Gospel' ? 
of the person and mission of Christ, of his Incarnation, 
Atonement, Resurrection, and redemptive grace? It was, 
of course, around this body of theological matter and the 
issues arising from it, that the disputes of the Reformation 
and the earlier seventeenth century had chiefly raged, and 
the temper of the Platonists, as we have seen, was to purge 
religion of controversy by changing its vocabulary and 
setting it in an altered framework. It was to be expected, 
therefore, that they would leave unstressed the 'evan- 
gelical' parts of Christianity: and this is what we find. 
They tend, without ostensible change of creed, to substi- 
tute, for the second Person of the Trinity or the Cruci- 
fied Redeemer, the divine teacher whose life and words 
show God and man in that state of union at which all 
religion aims. Christ instituted no new technique of sal- 
vation; he rather 'promulgated' and gave supreme con- 
firmation to the great original laws of the spiritual life, as 
that purity shall bring peace of soul, and vice misery. 1 
The Gospel, like the prophetic afflatus, is an ' Influx from 
God upon the minds of good men'; its aim and design is 
to unfold 'the Way and Method of uniting humane 
nature to Divinity'. 2 The 'Law' of the ancient Jews 
aimed at the same result, but only in a 'Typical or Em- 
blematical way'. In instituting the Old Covenant God 
himself was allegorising or 'shadowing forth' the truths 
later to be fully revealed. Christians may be, and, alas, 
constantly are, as 'legal' as the Jews when they rely upon 
their 'Atonement', or their 'Justification', as an external 
principle needing no translation into the terms of spiritual 

1 Smith's Discourses, p. 145. 2 ibid., pp. 278-9. 



RATIONAL THEOLOGY— JOHN SMITH 1 53 

psychology. The gospel is not a body of doctrines, but a 
saving influx moulding the heart towards the divine like- 
ness and quickening a godlike life within. We must not 
count upon being 'Elect', while neglecting the 'Real and 
Vital Emanations ' of God upon us. 

'It is not all our strong Dreams of being in favour with 
Heaven that fills our hungry souls ere the more with it: It is 
not a pertinacious Imagination of our Names being enrolled in 
the Book of life, or of the Debt-books of Heaven being crossed, 
or of Christ being ours, while we find him not living within us, or 
of the washing away of our sins in his bloud, while the foul and 
filthy stains thereof are deeply sunk in our own Souls. . . . And 
a meer Conceit or Opinion as it makes us never the better 
in reality within our selves, so it cannot render us ere the 
more acceptable to God who judges of all things as they 



are 



> 1 



It must not be supposed that Smith tries to substitute the 
'Jesus of history' for the Christ of theology. It is rather 
that the person of Christ represents to him a 'type' of the 
union of the divine and human natures, and an earnest 
of what God would further do for believers. Sometimes, 
indeed, he uses language which betrays less in words than 
in tone, how far he has moved away from the formulae 
of orthodox Christology. He concludes his Discourse Of 
Legal Righteousness and the Righteousness of Faith, for 
instance, by showing how l the whole business and Under- 
taking of Christ is eminently available both to give relief 
and ease to our Minds and Hearts, and also to encourage 
us to Godliness or a Godlike righteousness;' 2 and stating 
that it is 'very advantageous', 'highly accommodate', and 
'very agreeable every way and upon all accounts' that 
there should be such a Mediator. The whole tendency 
and scope of Smith's teaching, and his own conception 
of its relation to the needs and problems of his own age, 

1 ibid., p. 320 (my italics). a ibid., p. 335. 



154 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

may be summed up in this passage which he himself 
quotes from Plutarch : 

'God hath now taken away from his Oracles Poetrie, and the 
variety of dialect, and circumlocution, and obscuritie; and hath 
so ordered them to speak to those that consult them, as the Laws 
doe to the Cities under their subjection, and Kings to their 
people, and Masters to their Scholars, in the most intelligible and 
persuasive language? x 



THE METAPHYSICAL TEACHING OF THE PLATONISTS 

i. Ralph Cudworth 

No account of what was considered 'real' in the seven- 
teenth century would be complete without some mention 
of the metaphysical teaching of the Platonists, which is 
to be found mainly in the works of Ralph Cudworth and 
Henry More. We have already given some hint of 
what in John Smith's world counted as most real, and 
the general agreement between these thinkers on first 
principles was such that quite a brief summary will per- 
haps serve our purpose sufficiently here. It will be 
recalled that the starting-point of the Cambridge philo- 
sophers was opposition to Hobbes. To Hobbes, as we 
have seen, the only view consistent with modern en- 
lightenment was one which allowed reality to 'body' 
alone. The Cambridge school, on the other hand, in- 
spired by the wish to save the religious world-view from 
what they justifiably felt to be hostile doctrine, made it 
their concern to criticise the assumptions of Hobbes's 
materialism, and to show that it failed to give a complete 
account of reality. To this end they fused the testimony 
of Plato and Descartes with their own spiritual intuitions 
and those of spiritually minded men of all times into an 
impressive affirmation of the reality of God and of the 

1 ibid., p. 257 (my italics). 



RATIONAL THEOLOGY— CUD WORTH I $$ 

soul. Disputes of this kind about ultimate reality, in 
spite of the elaborate ratiocination and learning displayed 
on both sides, seem to be reducible after all to a straight 
contest between one affirmation and its opposite. Hobbes 
affirmed the reality of 'body', Cudworth and More of 
'spirit'. Each disputant proclaims the primacy of what 
seems most real to himself. 

In his quest for reality Cudworth feels that he will not 
have discovered what he seeks until he has found that 
which is 'self-existent', not dependent for its reality upon 
anything else. This principle, for him, is God; and con- 
versely the root of all atheism consists in 'making sense- 
less matter the only self-existent thing, and the original 
of all things'. 1 'The true and genuine idea of God in 
general is this, A perfect conscious understanding being 
(or mind) existing of itself from eternity, and the cause of 
all other things.' The point at issue, as Cudworth sees 
it, is whether Mind is secondary and derivative, 'the 
youngest and most creaturely thing in the world', or 
whether it is not rather 'senior to the world, and the 
architect thereof'. 2 For the atheist-materialist, Mind is 

'but a mere whiffling, evanid and fantastic thing; so that the 
most absolutely perfect of all things in the universe is grave, 
solid, and substantial senseless matter* 

— a view which to Cudworth is simply inconceivable. 
This recognition of Mind as senior to the world involves 
also the recognition of thought or soul in man as a real 
substance not dependent upon body. This standpoint 
enables Cudworth to detect what was incomplete in 
Hobbes's theory of knowledge. His point is that even 
if the processes of perception can be analysed into motions 
in matter, our awareness of those motions has still to be 
accounted for. Every 'seeming' may have behind it a 

1 True Intellectual System, vol. i. p. 321 (Tegg, 1845). 

2 ibid., vol. iii. pp. 60 and 420. 



1^6 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

certain configuration of material particles, but that does 
not alter the fact that only in a certain setting — namely, 
in a conscious being — do these configurations generate 
'seemings'. Some new element must then be present 
here, 'to' which there can be such a thing as a 'seeming'. 
What is this element? It will not do to dismiss the ' seem- 
ings' as 'mere apparitions', phantasms, while conceding 
'reality' only to the configurations. The seemings (i.e. 
phenomena of consciousness) are amongst the events in 
rerum natura; what possible ground, then, can there be 
for denying to them, or at any rate, to that which is aware 
of them, reality save an atheistic unwillingness to admit 
the existence of soul ? 

'A modern atheistic pretender to wit hath publicly owned this 
same conclusion, that "mind is nothing but local motion in the 
organic parts of man's body". These men have been sometimes 
indeed a little troubled with the fancy, apparition or seeming of 
cogitation — that is, the consciousness of it, as knowing not well 
what to make thereof; but then they put it off again, and satisfy 
themselves worshipfully with this, that fancy is but fancy, but 
the reality of cogitation nothing but local motion; as if there 
were not as much reality in fancy and consciousness as there is in 
local motion. That which inclined these men so much to this 
opinion was only because they were sensible and aware of this, 
that if there were any other action besides local motion admitted, 
there must needs be some substance acknowledged besides body. 1 1 

Cudworth develops his theory into a denial of the pas- 
sivity of the mind in the act of perception and an assertion 
of our freedom in Volition. Human Knowledge is 'a 
thing independent upon singular bodies, or proleptical to 
them, and in the order of nature before them'; it is 'not 
a mere passion from sensible things ' . 2 If Knowledge were 
merely the inevitable response of one group of particles to 
a stimulus from another group, 

1 ibid., vol. iii. p. 418 (piy italics). 
* ibid., vol. iii. pp. 64-5. 



RATIONAL THEOLOGY— CUDWORTH I $J 

'then would everything that suffered and reacted motion, espe- 
cially polite bodies, as looking-glasses, have something both of 
sense and understanding in them. It is plain, that there comes 
nothing to us from bodies without us, but only local motion and 
pressure. Neither is sense itself the mere passion of these 
motions, but the perception of their passions in a way of fancy. 
But sensible things themselves (as for example light and colours) 
are not known or understood either by the passion or fancy of 
sense, nor by anything merely foreign or adventitious, but by 
intelligible ideas exerted from the mind itself, that is, by some- 
thing native and domestic to it: nothing being more true than 
this of Boetius, that omne, quod scitur, non ex sua sed ex com- 
prehendentium natura, vi, et facultate cognoscitur? x 

And if sensation, although having its origin in material 
motions, yet cannot be defined as the mere passive recep- 
tion of those motions, but involves 'a perception of that 
passion' and therefore a percipient entity, still less can 
* mental conception' be attributed to the motion of exter- 
nal bodies (Cudworth means, I take it, what he calls our 
'universal and abstract ideas of the intelligible natures or 
essences of things'). And least of all can our volitions be 
so determined, 'there being plainly here something £<$> 
rjfiiv "in our own power" (by means whereof we be- 
come a principle of actions, and accordingly deserving 
commendation, or blame), that is, something of self- 
activity'. 

The affirmations here imperfectly summarised may be 
said to be the corner-stones upon which that vast and un- 
wieldy fabric, the True Intellectual System of the Universe, 
was built; it was by their means that he felt he could 
refute atheism, materialism and determinism. Into the 
merits of his refutation it is not our purpose to go; indeed 
metaphysical beliefs, having their roots in the emotions, 
are probably incapable of proof or disproof. All we can 
say is that Cudworth showed with considerable acumen 

1 ibid., vol. iii. p. 62. 



1^8 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

what metaphysical formulae were the necessary intellectual 
counterpart of a set of feelings opposed to Hobbes's. The 
Cambridge Platonists were contemplative, mystically- 
minded men to whom the realm of essence was more real 
than the material world. Their philosophy was a ration- 
alisation of this way of life. One further aspect of Cud- 
worth's teaching, however, deserves to be dwelt upon for 
a moment because of its bearing upon the theory of poetry. 
It will doubtless have occurred to readers of Cudworth 
that in his account of knowledge we have some of the 
materials for a theory of the ' imagination ' akin to Cole- 
ridge's. The view that there is 'as much reality in fancy 
and consciousness as in local motion ' involves the greater 
part of what Coleridge, in the philosophical chapters of the 
Biographia Literaria and elsewhere, was labouring to de- 
monstrate. What was chiefly needed before a theory of 
the imagination satisfactory to poets could be evolved, and 
what was lacking for the most part until Coleridge and 
Wordsworth, was precisely such a confidence as Cud- 
worth's in the reality of the mind's images. As we have 
suggested, intellectual conditions in the seventeenth and 
eighteenth centuries on the whole discounted as fictional 
all mental shapings other than the 'clear and distinct ideas ' 
of mathematics and of 'philosophy'. But if, not only 
every process of abstract thought, but every perception con- 
tained some element contributed by the mind, if the mind 
was constitutive in some degree of reality, then the way 
was clear for a theory which could give the highest pos- 
sible truth-value to the products of the shaping power. 
Cudworth, of course, makes no such application of his 
theory. There was no compelling reason, in his time, 
why any lofty theory of the creative imagination should 
be produced; on the contrary, as we have seen, there 
were the strongest philosophic grounds for regarding the 
works of the imagination as 'gross dew upon the pure 



RATIONAL THEOLOGY— CUDWORTH 1 59 

Glass of our Understandings'. 1 At best the imagination 
could be made to serve the understanding by deliberately 
using it, after the manner of the prophets, to produce 
what Coleridge, defining 'allegory', called 'the translation 
of abstract notions into a picture-language'. The philo- 
sophical poems of Henry More were the outcome of a 
conscious attempt to produce poetry on these principles, 
and may be taken as a comment on the usefulness, for 
poetry, of such a theory. The fact is, that Cudworth and 
More, although they were probably better equipped 
theoretically to vindicate the imagination than any of the 
moderns before the Italian critics of the eighteenth cen- 
tury, were simply not poets or critics, but moralists and 
religious philosophers. What they therefore wanted was 
a theory to support their belief in the self-existence and 
autonomy of the soul. Thus no real succour for the 
dwindling forces of poetry was forthcoming from this, 
the most likely quarter in the seventeenth century ; rather, 
on the whole, the reverse. Many far-reaching changes 
had to take place in the intellectual climate before there 
would come a theoretic justification of the power which 
could cast 'modifying colours' over the 'inanimate cold 
world', the 'universe of death', which science had substi- 
tuted for 

'That which moves with light and life informed, 

Actual, divine and true.' 2 

We know, of course, that Coleridge studied and found 
much to admire in the Cambridge Platonists ; 3 and I may 
be permitted, perhaps, to illustrate and conclude these 
remarks by placing side by side a passage from Cudworth 
and one from Wordsworth : 

'Knowledge and understanding is not a mere passion from the 
thing known, existing without the knower, because to know and 

1 See above, pp. 141 and 151. 2 Wordsworth, Prelude, xiv. 160. 

3 Cf. his remarks on Cudwonh, Omniana, No. 123. 



l6o THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

understand, as Anaxagoras of old determined, is /cparew, to 
"master" and "conquer" the thing known, and consequently 
not merely to suffer from it, or passively to lie under it, this 
being Kparaia6ai, to be "mastered" or "conquered" by it.' 1 

'Not prostrate, overborne, as if the mind 
Herself were nothing, a mere pensioner 
On outward forms — did we in presence stand 
Of that magnificent region. On the front 
Of this whole Song is written that my heart 
Must, in such Temple, needs have offer'd up 
A different worship.' 2 

2. Henry More 

With Henry More, as with Cudworth, the existence of 
the spiritual world was the first of certainties, and most of 
his works are designed to prove its reality. More was the 
most mystical of the Cambridge Platonists ; with him the 
reality of 'spirit* was more than an intellectual convic- 
tion, it was an experience. As with Coleridge, a sense of 
the divine presence interpenetrating all things seems to 
have been inborn in him, and he was conscious of it very 
early in his life. He speaks of 'that exceeding hail and 
entire sense of God which nature herself had planted 
deeply in me', and declares that his mind 'was enlightened 
with a sense of the noblest theories in the morning of his 
days'. 3 So little of earth was there in his make-up that his 
very body (if we are to believe him) gave forth a flower-like 
fragrance. One can fancy him like one of the angelic 
beings described by himself, whose bodies are ethereal 
vehicles for the spirit that informs them. He can dis- 
course with the familiarity of Milton's affable archangel, 
only at much greater length, on the affairs of the supra- 
mundane world. As a youth he was possessed, like Donne 

1 op. cit., vol. iii. p. 432. 2 Prelude, vi. 736. 

8 Quoted by Tulloch, Rational Theology and Christian Philosophy, etc., vol. ii. 
p. 308. 



RATIONAL THEOLOGY— HENRY MORE l6l 

and Milton, with a 'mighty and almost immoderate thirst 
after Knowledge'. But after ransacking the philosophies 
he found himself unsatisfied and uncertain of his bearings, 
and remained in this condition, apparently, for three or 
four years. Upon this 'dark night of the soul' there 
broke, then, the light of the new spiritual realisation to 
which I have already referred. 1 It came to him that the 
road to divine knowledge lay not through 'such an eager- 
ness and intentness in the reading of authors and contem- 
plating of things ', but through the purgation of the mind 
from all sorts of vices whatsoever. This realisation 
allayed his 'insatiable desire and thirst after the know- 
ledge of things' and awoke in him an impulse towards 
the inward discipline which is the condition of spiritual 
vision. More's 'dying into life' was also accompanied by 
the sense that the will of the ordinary self must be extin- 
guished, so that the divine will might be all in all. He 
had been guided to this wisdom by the reading of the 
Platonists, especially Plotinus, who insists always that 
vision springs from ethical purification : 'if you have been 
this, you have seen this'. 'I was fully convinced', says 
More, 'that true holiness was the only safe entrance into 
divine knowledge'. 2 Furthermore, 

'When this inordinate Desire after the Knowledge of things 
was thus allay'd in me, and I aspir'd after nothing but this sole 
Purity and Simplicity of Mind, there shone in upon me daily 
a greater Assurance than ever I could have expected, even 
of those things which before I had the greatest Desire to 
Know.' 3 

From this one impulse, which taught him more than all 
the sages could, all the work of his life took its origin and 
its specific direction. It is important, in trying to follow 
him through his many elaborate arguments in defence of 

1 See above, p. 140. 2 Tulloch, op. cit., p. 312. 

3 Ward's Life of More, quoted Bullough, op. cit., p. 35. 



1 62 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

* spirit', to remember that beneath all his reasonings, and 
supporting them, lay a certainty born of mystical experi- 
ence. The experience was the determinant, the philo- 
sophy was its rationalisation; and in saying this one is 
virtually absolving posterity from the onus of reading the 
philosophy. Experience is always interesting and more 
or less communicable, as the permanence of great poetry 
shows; but the rationalisations of one age generally mean 
little to later centuries. Nevertheless, since our present 
concern is with the workings of the seventeenth century 
mind in its efforts to define the most 'real', I will 
give a short account of some of More's methods of 
procedure. 

Beginning life, then, with his interpretation of exist- 
ence unalterably fixed by his emotional experience, More 
was at once confronted with the two main philosophical 
systems of his own time, those of Hobbes and Descartes. 
His repugnance for Hobbism may be guessed, and indeed 
he clearly regarded himself as the champion of all vital 
truth against Hobbes's materialism and its dire conse- 
quences. Nothing, he felt, was of more urgent import- 
ance than 'to root out this sullen conceit' of Hobbes, 
'that the very Notion of a Spirit or Substance Immaterial 
is a perfect Incompossibility and pure Non-sense'. For 
the implications of this view, as he clearly saw, were 

'That it is impossible that there should be any God, or Soul, 
or Angel, Good or Bad ; or any Immortality or Life to come. 
That there is no religion, no Piety nor Impiety, no Vertue nor 
Vice, Justice nor Injustice, but what it pleases him that has the 
longest Sword to call so. That there is no Freedome of Will, 
nor consequently any Rational remorse of Conscience in any 
Being whatsoever, but that all that is, is nothing but Matter and 
Corporeal Motion ; and that therefore every trace of man's life 
is as necessary as the tracts of Lightning and the fallings of 
Thunder; the blind impetus of the Matter breaking through 
or being stopt every where, with as certain and determinate 



RATIONAL THEOLOGY— HENRY MORE 1 63 

necessity as the course of a Torrent after mighty storms and 
showers of Rain.' x 

In his Immortality of the Soul he places Hobbes, ' that con- 
fident exploder of Immaterial Substances out of the world', 
as it were in the witness-box by quoting eight of his 
clearest statements for the sole reality of body, and then 
proceeds to refute him point by point. We shall under- 
stand his position best, perhaps, by considering what he 
took to be the True Notion of a Spirit. 2 In this treatise, 
which belongs to his last period, we find him in opposition 
to Descartes as well as to Hobbes. More had formerly 
been one of the earliest transmitters of Cartesian ideas to 
England, and had corresponded with Descartes himself 
(in 1648) in a vein of flamboyant compliment conceivable 
only in the seventeenth century, when eminent men in the 
various European countries could salute each other like 
kings across sea and frontier, and over the heads of the 
uninstructed. What had especially attracted him in 
Descartes, apart from the precision and charm of all his 
work, was his clear affirmation of the existence of the soul 
and of God as the fundamental certainties. Here, he felt, 
was the great, the incomparable philosopher of the modern 
age, who could not only explain the hidden workings of 
nature but who could do it without falling, like Hobbes, 
into materialism. A theory of the world which accepted 
the last results of science, but which yet confirmed the 
metaphysics of Platonism and Christianity: what more 
could be desired? Gradually, however, More's youthful 
enthusiasm for Descartes, like Coleridge's for Hartley, 
gave way to a misgiving that there was a fundamental 
cleavage between them; and Descartes, to whom he had 

1 Immortality of the Soul, ch. ix (in F. I. Mackinnon, The Philosophical Writings 
of Henry More, pp. 86-7). 

2 The treatise so headed, which was a translation of part of More's Enchiridion 
Metaphysicum (1671), was appended to pt. i. of Glanvill's Sadducismus Trium- 
phatus (1681). The references here are to the 1700 edition of the Sadducismus. 



164 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

written in 1648 that 'All the great leaders of philosophy 
who have ever existed, or who may exist, are pygmies in 
comparison with your transcendent genius,' * at length 
became for him 'that pleasant Wit Renatus des Cartes, who 
by his jocular Metaphysical Meditations has so luxated and 
distorted the rational faculties of some otherwise sober 
and quick-witted persons'. 2 This remarkable change 
was brought about by the realisation that Descartes did 
not teach the 'True Notion of a Spirit'; that his con- 
ception of 'soul', that is, was not 'true' to More's own 
experience. More's technique for expressing his diverg- 
ence from Descartes was strictly confined by the con- 
temporary modes of thought, but he seems nevertheless to 
be feeling after and endeavouring to expose, that very 
quality in Cartesianism which, as I have suggested above, 3 
made it ultimately a force hostile to poetry and to religion. 
He singles out for attack Descartes's definition of the soul 
as a res cogitans, a thinking substance, having no extension 
in space. For one who, though affirming the reality of 
spirit, yet denies it 'extension' or location in space, More 
coins the term 'Nullibist'. To say that a thing is, and 
yet is nowhere, seems to him dangerous nonsense. He 
agrees with the Nullibists that 'whatever real Being there 
is that is somewhere, is also extended', but differs in 
believing that the soul, which his adversaries agree to be 
real, not only is, but is somewhere, that is, occupies space. 
To strip spirit of all attributes save that of thought is, he 
fears, to reduce it to a mere abstraction. The Cartesians 
have wrongly assumed that because we can conceive the 
soul merely as cogitation, therefore it has no other con- 
ceivable attributes, such as location. He points out that 
the mind can conceive many things in abstraction from 
many of their attributes, and urges that 

1 Tulloch, op. cit., vol. ii. p. 369. 2 True Notion of a Spirit, p. 2. 

3 pp. 86 ff. 



RATIONAL THEOLOGY— HENRY MORE 1 65 

'from the precision of our thoughts to infer the real precision or 
separation of the things themselves is a very putid and puerile 
sophism.' l 

The view that the Mind is not 'in space* seems to More to 
imply that ' the Mind, in so far as it is conceived to be an 
Incorporeal Substance, is to be exterminated out of the 
Universe, as a useless figment and Chimaera.' 

Such authority had the notion of 'Extension', in the 
seventeenth century, as the essential attribute of the 
admittedly 'real' (matter), that unless one could attribute 
extension to a substance, that substance was in danger of 
evaporating into nothingness. This was More's fear for 
'spirit'; Descartes by affirming spirit as a mere abstrac- 
tion was really, in spite of all appearances to the contrary, 
beginning upon the slippery slope towards materialism 
and atheism. It was safer, in More's opinion, to admit 
frankly that extension is a necessary attribute of all that 
exists, and to demonstrate, further, that spirit, as a real 
being, must be extended also. He was anxious to claim 
extension for spirit, 

'that it may be conceived to be some real Being and true Sub- 
stance, and not a vain Figment, such as is everything that has no 
Amplitude and is in no sort extended.' 2 

It is a queer situation: More, the champion of 'spirit', 
appears, at least at first sight, to be paying unconscious 
tribute to the sovereignty of 'matter', for he can only 
defend the reality of spirit by endowing it with extension, 
which was supposed to be the peculiar and essential attri- 
bute of matter. He attempts to avoid the implications of 
this in two ways. First he denies that extension is the 
formal principle of matter, and substitutes for it 'impene- 
trability'; spirit, on the other hand, is penetrable. 
Secondly, the property of 'divisibility', which was agreed 

1 op. cit., p. 11. a op. cit., p. 41. 



1 66 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURV BACKGROUND 

to be inseparable from extended matter, does not belong 
to extended spirit. The extension of spirit is true ex- 
tension, and yet it is different from material extension ; 
it is what he calls 'metaphysical extension', a notion 
which becomes little clearer when he describes it as a 
* fourth dimension' 1 or 'essential spissitude'. Spirit, it 
seems, is to have extension so that it may be deemed as 
real as matter, but it must have it without any of the 
awkward conditions which attend upon material exten- 
sion; it must be penetrable and 'indiscerpible'. More 
retorts the charge of 'corpority' upon his opponents; 
they cannot conceive of extension apart from matter 
because they wrongly hold that whatever is extended is 
the object of imagination, not of intellect. The fact is, 
he continues, in a characteristic manner of philosophic 
invective, that they are suffering from that very 'materious 
disease' of which I was accusing More himself a moment 
ago: 

'their Imagination is not sufficiently defecated and depurated 
from the filth and unclean tinctures of corpority ; their mind 
is so illaqueated and lime-twigged, as it were, with the Ideas and 
Properties of corporeal things,' 2 

that they mix up metaphysical with physical extension. 
Metaphysical extension, then, is the idea of extension con- 
templated by the intellect in abstraction from 'corporeal 
affections'. In trying to substantiate this conception 
More frequently appeals for proof to the idea of 'infinite 
extension' which, he says, is imprinted on our intellects 
(not our imaginations) so that we cannot think it away. 
He asks his readers to refer to the 'internal sense' of their 
minds, and see whether they can fail to conceive of a cer- 
tain infinite, immovable extension having necessary, actual 
existence— the equivalent, I take it, of infinite space — and 
of themselves as in this. The conception of infinite space 

1 op. cit., p. 32. 2 op. cit., p. 30. 



RATIONAL THEOLOGY— HENRY MORE 1 67 

seems to him to be an example of extension conceived 
without the attributes of matter, and hence to be a proof 
of his proposition. As is well known, this infinite exten- 
sion or space became with More, by a very natural 
analogy, an attribute of God, the Infinite Spirit. In thus 
making space the divine ground of the universe he was 
followed by Locke and Newton. 1 

More's arguments can perhaps best be viewed, from 
our present point of view, as an endeavour to reunite 
matter and spirit, which the rigid logic of Descartes had 
left in unbridgeable opposition, and to give greater 'body', 
or actuality, to both conceptions, which in Cartesianism 
were too nakedly abstract. More wants his 'spirit' to be 
more than abstract 'cogitation'; he will have it to be 
activity, and the activity must be there where it is at work, 
penetrating and moving matter. 

More had thus demonstrated to his own satisfaction 
that the notion of a spirit contained no inherent contra- 
diction or absurdity. His further proofs, from reason, of 
the actual existence of spirit, as a substance distinct from 
matter — proofs from the necessary existence of God, 
from the incapacity of matter to think, move, or organise 
itself, and so forth — follow the usual lines, and need not be 
recapitulated here. But there was a further class of proofs 
on which he placed increasing reliance in his later years, 
the 'proofs' from testimonies of apparitions and witch- 
craft. In his treatise on the Immortality of the Soul he had 
spoken of the 'pre-eminence of the arguments drawn from 
reason above those from story'. But later he appears to 
have felt that the increase of infidelity made well-attested 
stories of witches and apparitions especially requisite, since 
the sceptics and worldlings who denied 'spirit' were still 
afraid of 'ghosts', and their 'dull souls', unable to 
rise to rational conviction, might thereby be 'rubbed and 

1 Cf. Mackinnon, op. at., pp. 293-4. 



1 68 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

awakened with a suspicion, at least, if not assurance, that 
there are other intelligent beings besides these that are 
clad in heavy earth and clay'. 1 More includes evidence 
of this kind in several of his works, devoting to it, for 
instance, the whole of Book in. even of his early Antidote 
against Atheism (1652). For More 

' Millions of spiritual creatures walk the earth,' 2 

and ascend upwards, in unbroken hierarchical degrees, 
through the air to heaven. It was typical of the seven- 
teenth century situation that this pilgrim of the skies 
should welcome blasts from Hell as 'evidence' for the 
reality of the heavenly spirit-world in which he was so 
entirely at his ease ; that this Cambridge rationalist, after 
proving his faith in the language of loftiest metaphysics, 
should proceed to buttress it by stories of 'Coskinomancy', 
of 'Margaret Warine discharged upon an Oake at a 
Thunder-clap', or of the 'vomiting of Cloth stuck with 
Pins, Nails and Needles, as also Glass, Iron and Haire, by 
Wierus his Patients'. The fact is that in appealing to 
demonology More, like Browne and Glanvill, was tapping 
a reservoir of traditional supernatural belief which lay 
deeper in the national consciousness than Christianity 
itself, and deeper, certainly, than the new ice-crust of 
rationalism which now covered it. Christianity, as is well 
known, had not abolished the older divinities, it had 
merely deposed and demonised them; and Protestantism, 
aiming at the purification of Christianity from the 'pagan' 
accretions of the middle ages, had produced at first not a 
diminished but a greatly heightened Satan-consciousness, 
so that the later sixteenth and earlier seventeenth cen- 
turies, when witch-burnings reached their maximum, were 
Satan's palmiest time in England. By the time of More, 
it is true, this Puritan horror of the powers of darkness, 

1 Tuiloch, op. est., vol. ii. p. 390. 2 Paradise Lost, iv. 677. 



RATIONAL THEOLOGY— HENRY MORE 1 69 

which had persecuted without pity much that had been 
tolerated in the less self-conscious pre-Reformation days, 
had greatly weakened, under 'philosophic' influences. 
But primitive picture-thinking is not destroyed at a blow, 
and the persistent if furtive acknowledgment of things un- 
dreamed of in the 'new philosophy* was now unex- 
pectedly available as a reinforcement to the philosophic 
defence of the faith. It may be, one may now conjecture, 
that in making the most of this crude material the 
defenders of religion were guided by a sound instinct. 
They may have obscurely felt, though they could not have 
realised or admitted it, that the ancient springs of popular 
demonology were also those of religion itself, and that in 
the emotion of the supernatural, however evoked, they 
had a surer foundation for faith than all the 'proofs' of 
philosophic theism. 1 

In this side of his work More is closely associated with 
his friend Joseph Glanvill, and as Glanvill is in more ways 
than one a significant figure for our present purposes, I 
shall include what remains to be said on this topic in the 
next chapter, which is devoted to him. 

1 Cf. above, pp. 54-5. 



CHAPTER IX 

jfoseph Glanvill (1636-80) 

GLANVILL is, of course, best known as the 
source of Matthew Arnold's Scholar Gypsy, but 
any one who assumed from the extract printed at 
the head of that poem that Glanvill's works were a mere 
storehouse of 'quaint' lore would be greatly mistaken. 
He is better represented by his admirable phrase 'climates 
of opinions', 1 which has been put into currency of late by 
Professor Whitehead. Glanvill was, in fact, a typical 
'modern churchman' of the Restoration period, a Fellow 
of the Royal Society, interested in every up-to-date theory 
and discovery, an ardent upholder of 'modern' versus 
'ancient', and especially concerned, as befitted his pro- 
fession, to demonstrate 'the agreement of reason and 
faith ', and to explain how religious the ' science ' of the 
Royal Society really was. Though not a member of the 
Cambridge group, he was a great admirer of the Pla- 
tonists, especially of Henry More; and Wood tells us 
that he regretted having been at Oxford instead of at 
Cambridge where, at any rate in his undergraduate days 
(he entered Exeter College in 1 652), the 'new philosophy' 
was held in greater esteem. But Glanvill's work is not all 
of one piece; he is definitely a 'transitional', and serves 
admirably to link the ages of Browne and Boyle. He 
might be termed 'Browne with a difference', and the 
difference is chiefly due to the fact that although he pre- 
deceased Browne he was born a generation later, and was 
consequently much affected by the post-Restoration 
climate. He was not an original thinker, but he could 
state with admirable clearness, and with real charm of 

1 Cf. below, p. 193. 
170 



JOSEPH GLANVILL 171 

style, the views with which he most sympathised ; and it 
is perhaps for this very reason that his development 
reflects in miniature the transition from the earlier to the 
later phases of the century. In his first work, The Vanity 
of Dogmatizing (1661), he shows something of Browne's 
peculiar mental poise, and in occasional coruscations 
echoes the very quality of the Brownese wit more closely 
than any other writer I know. In his later work, on the 
other hand, in such an essay as The Agreement of Reason 
and Religion?- for example, he has strained out all 'meta- 
physical ' qualities (doubtless remembering what was ex- 
pected of Fellows of the Royal Society), 2 and writes the 
sober, transparent prose of Sprat, Boyle or Tillotson. A 
few examples will not be out of place here, for they illus- 
trate one aspect of the process which it is the main purpose 
of this book to study. 

From the Vanity of Dogmatizing : 

'(#) Nature, that was veil'd to Aristotle, hath not yet un- 
cover'd, in almost two thousand years. What he sought on the 
other side of Euripus, we must not look for on this side Immor- 
tality. In easie disquisitions we are often left to the uncertainty 
of a guess : yea after we have triumph'd in a supposed Evprj/ca ; 
a new-sprung difficulty marrs our Ovations ; and exposeth us to 
the Torment of a disappointment : so that even the great Master 
of Dogmatists himself concludes the scene with an Anxius vixi, 
Dubius morior? 3 

'(£) For our initial age is like the melted wax to the prepared 
seal, capable uf any impression from the documents of our 
Teachers. The half-moon or Cross, are indifferent to its recep- 
tion ; and we may with equal facility write on this rasa Tabula, 
Turk, or Christian. We came into the world like the unformed 
Cub, 'tis education is our Plastick: we are baptized into our 
opinions by our Juvenile nurture, and our growing years con- 
firm those unexamined Principles.' 4 

1 Essay V. in Essays on Several Important Subjects, 1676. 

2 See below, pp. 210 ff. 3 p. 66 (1661 edition). 
4 p. 128. 



172 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

I have kept the best, though shortest, example for the 

last: 

i (c) The Sages of old live again in us; and in opinions there 
is a Metempsychosis. We are our reanimated Ancestours, and 
antedate their Resurrection. 1 x 

The derivative quality of this writing would be clear 
enough without the reference to the 'ingenious Dr 
Browne' which Glanvill makes in this treatise, 2 and with- 
out the use of the Brownese word 'digladiations', 3 which 
is also to be found here. Glanvill has caught something 
of Browne's attitude to his subjects, his play of fancy 
steadied by wistfulness and pity, and has reproduced some 
of his devices of style, the progression by allusion, image 
and antithesis, the varied repetition, the intellectual 
somersault, the flash of paradox. But Glanvill's is a 
thinner medium, and if you surrender to it for awhile, 
allowing yourself to pretend that it is Browne's, you will 
soon sink. His sallies are less native to his way of 
thought, they are the conscious flourishes of a mind less 
molten, more set in the 'philosophic' mould. Ten years 
later he was writing like this (one example should suffice) : 

(Reason, he is saying, supports Religion by showing) 'that 
the Divine Nature is infinite, and our Conceptions very 
shallow and finite; that 'tis therefore very unreasonable in us 
to indeavour to pry into the Secrets of his Being, and Actions; 
and to think that we can measure and comprehend them: That 
we know not the Essence and Ways of acting of the most ordin- 
ary and obvious Things of Nature, and therefore must not 
expect thoroughly to understand the deeper Things of God ; 
That God hath revealed those Holy Mysteries to us; and that 
'tis the highest reason in the world to believe, that what he saith 
is true, though we do not know how these things are 1 4 

There, one feels, speaks the Fellow of the Royal Society, 
1 p. 138. * p. 204. 

3 The word is also to be found in Bacon {Ad<u. of Learning, iv. 6.). 

4 Essays on Several Important Subjects, \. p. 11. 



JOSEPH GLANVILL 1 73 

the Chaplain-in-Ordinary to Charles u. and Rector of 
Bath Abbey. 

In order to explain how it was that this rational divine 
and ardent modernist held the views that he did about 
Witchcraft, I propose now to consider two of his most 
characteristic works, The Vanity of Dogmatizing and 
Sadducismus Triumphatus. The first of these, his earliest 
work, is also the most interesting, both for the richness of 
its prose style and the completeness with which it conveys 
Glanvill's outlook. It is also valuable as a summary of the 
main topics which were being discussed, in 'philosophic' 
circles, in the middle of the century, and as revealing the 
processes by which, it was hoped, ' true ' views of nature 
could be substituted for vain ones. It is a strangely 
double-faced book, for in spite of its sedulously main- 
tained tone of scepticism it is, in essence, a paean of 
triumph in celebration of the new philosophy. Purport- 
ing to humble us with the extent of our ignorance, it really 
congratulates us on our wonderful progress in knowledge. 
To the humility of Bacon and the scepticism of Descartes 
he adds the jubilation of a later age over the new world 
which the scientific meekness had inherited. Of course 
we know nothing; our faculties are prone to err: but 
consider what we have achieved by recognising this fact! 
The main controversial aim of the book is an attack on 
the 'dogmatising' of the scholastics and the ancients; it 
is against these that he urges the insignificance of our 
knowledge. Dogmatism is vain when it is a schoolman 
who dogmatises; not so when it is Descartes. In spite of 
his reservations about the provisional nature of the Car- 
tesian explanations, it is they alone that satisfy him. The 
book belongs, therefore, to the story of the rejection of 
scholasticism, 1 and in the battle of the books Glanvill is a 
redoubtable champion of Modern versus Ancient. 

1 Cf. Chapter i. above. 



174 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

I. The Vanity of Dogmatizing. 

He opens his argument with the conjecture that Adam, 
in his primal innocence, must have known all that we now, 
in our 'decay and ruins', strive vainly to guess at. Pre- 
lapsarian Adam 'needed no spectacles'; neither did he 
need a 'Galileo's tube' to perceive the 'Celestial magnifi- 
cence and bravery'. The real significance of these fancies 
lies in the two 'philosophic' principles by which Glan- 
vill justifies them. The first of these is, that 'as far as the 
operation of nature reacheth, it works by corporeal instru- 
ments'; 1 or, in other words, a purely physical or 
'natural' account can be given of every occurrence in 
nature. Secondly : 

'Sense is made by motion, caus'd by bodily impression on the 
organ and continued to the brain, and centre of perception.' 

Hence where we fail to perceive the chain of causes 
behind a natural event, this is simply due to failure of our 
bodily organs. Now Adam, as the 'medal of God', 
stamped with the divine image, must be supposed to have 
had perfect 'organs'; what we surmise or deduce, he 
could perceive by his senses alone. It was much dis- 
cussed in the seventeenth century, for instance, how the 
loadstone attracted iron; and a mechanical explanation 
being necessary, it was imagined that it did this by 
'Atomical Effluviums,' by emitting, that is, a stream of 
material particles which enveloped the iron and dragged 
it towards the magnet. Adam, says Glanvill, could see 
with his own eyes whether or not this was indeed what 
occurred. 'Adam', in fact, becomes here a form of wish- 
fulfilment for the mechanico-materialist; he sees and 
therefore knows what the philosopher is firmly persuaded 
of, but cannot demonstrate. 

1 Cf. Bacon's ' God worketh nothing in nature but by second causes ' {Adv. 
of Learning, i. 3). 



JOSEPH GLANVILL 175 

Leaving our Cartesian ancestor in the enjoyment of his 
philosophic Eden, Glanvill now changes these notes to 
tragic, and begins to catalogue the manifold ignorances of 
fallen humanity. It ill befits us to be dogmatic when we 
know nothing of the matters that concern us most — of 
the nature of the soul, to begin with. Whence comes it? 
Is it newly created for each new individual, or handed 
down by 'seminall traduction'? Then there are all the 
difficulties arising out of the Cartesian dualism; 1 the 
problem of how body and soul — distinct substances — 
the one extended in space, the other unextended ('no 
where', as More expressed it) and immaterial — could 
possibly cohere. The thought of this fundamental riddle 
moves Glanvill to one of his best-known utterances : 

'How the purer Spirit is united to this Clod, is a knot too hard 
for fallen Humanity to unty. . . . How should a thought be 
united to a marble-statue, or a sun-beam to a lump of clay ! The 
freezing of the words in the air in the northern climes, is as con- 
ceivable as this strange union. . . . And to hang weights on the 
wings of the winde seems far more intelligible.' 2 

Nor do we know by what hidden mechanism the soul is 
able to move the body. We can construct imaginary 
material analogies to illustrate this : but, says Glanvill (the 
paradox warming his imagination to the point of a 
Brownese scintillation), if we consider the soul 

'under the notion of the ingenious Sir K. Digby as a pure Mind 
and Knowledge, or as the admir'd Des-Cartes expresses it, une 
chose qui pense, as a thinking substance; it will be as hard to appre- 
hend as that an empty wish should remove Mountains: a sup- 
position, which, if realized, would relieve Sisyphus.' 3 

Nor are we helped by the theory of 'the most excellent 

1 Cf. above, pp. 83 ff. 2 Vanity of Dogmatizing, p. 20. 

3 ibid., p. 22. Compare this passage, in which the philosopher has the air of 
deliberately ornamenting his point with a fancy, with the more organic allusive- 
ness of Browne's : ' Some graves will be opened before they be quite closed, and 
Lazarus be no wonder '. {Urn Burial, ch. v.) 



176 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

Cantabrigian Philosopher* (Henry More), that the soul is 
an extended penetrable substance ; * for if it penetrates 
all bodies 'without the least jog', how can it impart to 
them any motion ? Similarly we are at a loss for a scien- 
tific theory of sensation (perception). We think we know 
that it is the soul that perceives, and that the body is only 
the transmitter of 'corporeal impressions'; at least we 
have for this view the authority of Aristotle, Plato, and 
above all, 'that wonder of men, the Great ~Des-Cartes\ 
But 

'how the soule, by mutation made in matter, a substance of 
another kind, should be excited to action ; and how bodily alter- 
ations and motions should concern it which is subject to neither; 
is a difficulty which confidence may triumph over sooner, then 
conquer.' 2 

We are ignorant, too, of the inner mechanics of Memory. 
Glanvill passes in review the theories of Descartes, Sir K. 
Digby, Aristotle and Hobbes on this subject, and finds 
them all inconclusive. The theories of memory pro- 
pounded by the seventeenth century philosophers, and 
Glanvill's reasons for dissatisfaction with them, are indeed 
worthy of some notice in passing ; for they illustrate the 
contemporary effort to explain all natural processes — 
even, as in this instance, those of mind — by constructing 
an illustrative mental picture of the process on mechanical 
principles. Descartes, for instance, to whom Glanvill as 
usual gives a respectful hearing, conjectured that impres- 
sions left, as it were, tracks or channels behind them in 
the porous matter of the brain, and that when we perform 
an act of memory, the pineal gland radiates the animal 
spirits around until they find the track representing the 
relevant impression. The spirits at once flow into this 
track, which admits them more readily than any of the 
non-relevant tracks, and the pineal gland registers its 

1 See above, pp. 164 ff. * Canity of Dogmatizing, p. 29. 



JOSEPH GLANVILL 1 77 

satisfaction in a motion which the soul translates into the 
object sought for. Glanvill credits this theory (and that 
of Digby, which need not be retailed) with ingenuity, and 
admits that conjecture could hardly further go; he finds 
the explanation, however, less 'false' than 'unconceiv- 
able*. That is to say, you have only to try to elaborate 
this imaginary mechanical model of the mind still further 
to find it unworkable. How is it, for instance, that we 
have distinct and separate remembrance of objects whose 
images must, in fact, have originally passed through the 
same aperture in the brain ? Moreover, how do the spirits 
infallibly find the right track? Amongst the myriads that 
there must be, would there not inevitably be others which 
would admit the spirits as readily as the appropriate ones? 
And surely these ' tracks ' made in such soft matter as the 
brain would tend to be filled up by the pressure around 
them ; or else ' the opening of other vicine passages might 
quickly obliterate any tracks of these : as the making of 
one hole in the yielding mud^ defaces the print of another 
near it'. 1 In a word, by the time you have reduced the 
brain to a lump of jelly riddled with impossible millions 
of wormholes, your imaginary picture has ceased to seem 
credible or explanatory. Similarly with Hobbes's theory, 
to the effect that memory is 'decaying sense', that is, 
awareness of motions which were formerly impressed by 
objects upon the brain, and which continue there still, 
though less vigorously than when the object was present. 
To this Glanvill replies that the brain is not composed of 
the kind of matter that can retain vibratory motions for 
any length of time; it is, on the contrary, 'of such a 
clammy consistence, that it can no more retain it than a 
Quagmire 1 . Moreover, if each thing remembered were 
represented by a conserved motion in the brain, our 
memories would be stored 'with infinite variety of divers, 

1 ibid., p. 35. 



I78 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

yea contrary motions, which must needs interfere, thwart 
and obstruct one another: and there would be nothing 
within us, but Ataxy and disorder'. 

Passing from mind to body, Glanvill next observes that 
the organisation and persistence of generic and specific 
forms in vegetables and animals are great mysteries. The 
suggestion that they are accidental is preposterous, neither 
has any satisfactory mechanical solution been found. But 
even what might be supposed the simpler problem of the 
composition and cohesion of inorganic bodies is unsolved. 
By what principle do the 'parts' of a body hold together? 
Here again we observe the effort to explain the problem 
by conceiving the inner structure of matter pictorially. 
Descartes has said that 'rest' is the cohesive principle; but 
if this be so, why are some things firm and others brittle? 
The thought of the absurd consequences of this theory 
provokes Glanvill to a passage of Brownese paradox: 

'if the Union of the Parts consist only in Rest; it would seem 
that a bagg of dust would be of as firm a consistence as that of 
Marble or Adamant: a Bar of Iron will be as easily broken as a 
Tobacco-pipe; and Bajazet's Cage had been but a sorry Prison.' 1 

What of the suggestion that the material particles are to 
be imagined as grappling each other in an intricate tangle 
by 'hooks' or 'angulous involutions'? Well, but the 
'hooks' themselves are further divisible into lesser hooks, 
and either we must picture a series of dwindling hooklets 
extending to infinity, or we must come at last to 'in- 
divisibles' which are holding together by nothing but 
juxtaposition. As usual, however, after showing the 
weakness of all proposed mechanical solutions, Glanvill 
praises the illustrious Descartes, 'that miracle of men ', for 
having given an account which, though imperfect, is yet 
'the most ingenious and rational that hath or (it may be) 

1 ibid., p. 49. 



JOSEPH GLANVILL 1 79 

can be given'. It is evident that although mechanical 
explanations have hitherto proved inadequate, it is along 
such lines that Glanvill looks for our nearest possible 
approach to truth. He freely admits, however, that it is 
a 'disease of our Intellectuals', one of the frailties incident 
to fallen humanity, that we can conceive nothing but by 
sense-analogies, or what he calls, in a phrase worth 
remembering, a 'return to material phantasms', 1 It is 
only Nature's grosser ways of working which are sensible; 
her hidden machinery is for ever hidden, and all we can 
do is to 'imagine' it on the analogy of the perceptible. 
But even our senses themselves impose deceits upon us. 
Glanvill enumerates several examples in which motion is 
imperceptible, the grand instance being, of course, the 
apparent quiescence of the earth. Glanvill writes, it may 
be observed, as if few were yet convinced of the earth's 
motion; 'its assertion', he says, 'would be entertained 
with the hoot of the Rabble'. He is anxious to suspend 
his own judgment on the matter, though he is clearly 
swayed by the authority of the great wits such as 'Pyth- 
agoras, Des-Cartes, Copernicus, Galileo, More, Kepler, 
etc.', and thinks it 'no heresy' to believe in the earth's 
motion. Furthermore, we are prone to the error of ' trans- 
lating the Idea of our Passions to things without us'. We 
make the familiar mistake of attributing secondary quali- 
ties to objects themselves, and imagine that the heat is 'in' 
the fire, the colour 'in' the flower, and so on. 

The next class of errors which Glanvill deals with is 
the deceits and fallacies of our 'Imaginations', and it is 
important for our purpose to attend with some care to his 
observations on this vital topic. We have learnt to expect 
little mercy for the imagination from seventeenth century 
writers, and it certainly gets no quarter from Glanvill. 
The age was too intent on separating 'truth' from 'error', 

1 ibid., p. 67. 



l8o THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

and too convinced that truth resided in abstraction, to 
have much respect for the source of all fiction — the 
faculty that dealt in 'material phantasms'. As we have 
repeatedly seen, it was held to be precisely the mark of the 
philosophically and spiritually minded to be able to tran- 
scend the level at which phantasms seem to be real. 
Glanvill begins the attack at once by speaking of the 'evil 
conduct of our Imaginations, whose irregular strength and 
importunity doth almost perpetually abuse us', and pro- 
ceeds to give a brief analysis of the soul's intellectual 
actions, so as to be able the better to expose the deceptive- 
ness of that 'mysterious faculty', (i) First, then, there 
is 'simple apprehension'. Simple apprehension of a pre- 
sent corporal object is called 'Sense'; of an absent 
object, Imagination. But if we would reach an appre- 
hension of 'spirituals', we must 'denudate them of all 
material Phantasmes' so that they may become the object 
of our 'Intellects'. (2) Next comes the framing of pro- 
positions from 'simple intellections', whence springs our 
knowledge of distinctions and identities. When such a 
judgment of identity or distinction relates to material 
objects, it is made by the imagination ; if otherwise, by 
the understanding. (3) Lastly, we have the connecting 
of propositions and deducing conclusions from them : this 
process is called Discourse, or Reason. Correct deduc- 
tions are made when the essential principles of all dis- 
course are employed (he mentions a few of the familiar 
axioms, e.g., Invpossibile est idem esse et non esse ; Quodlibet 
est, vel non est, etc.). But when the conclusion is deduced 
from 'mis-apprehended or ill-compounded phantasmes', 
we ascribe it to the Imagination. Imagination does not 
deceive us at the first stage, since our senses always 
correctly inform us of the only truth within their scope, 
namely, that they are affected in such-and-such a manner. 
Our sight, which reports the 'crookedness' of a stick half 



JOSEPH GLANVILL l8l 

under water, is correctly informing us of the true be- 
haviour of light when passing through media of differing 
densities. It is at the second stage that imagination 
deceives, when we begin to judge that the phantasms are 
copies of realities, and hence to draw wrong inferences 
from them. We begin at this stage to mistake 'motions 
within the cranium' for 'exterior realities' — hence the 
'Visions, Voyces, Revelations of the Enthusiast', or the 
delusions of 'hypochondriacal imaginants'. But it is in 
our reflections about spiritual matters that imagination so 
easily besets us. In his ensuing remarks about the soul 
and angels, Glanvill, in his anxiety to preserve their 
spirituality, declares boldly for what Henry More called 
'nullibism': 

'That the Soul and Angels are devoid of quantitative dimen- 
sions , hath the suffrage of the most ; and that they have nothing 
to do with grosser locality, is commonly opinion'd. But who is 
it, that retains not a great part of the imposture, by allowing 
them a definitive Ubi, which is still but Imagination} He that 
said, a thousand might dance on the point of a Needle, spake but 
grossly; and we may as well suppose them to have wings, as a 
proper Ubi.'' x 

To be 'in a place' is incompatible with 'so depurate a 
Nature'. We do not ask 'where' a thought is, or 'where' 
Virtue is. Yet so strong is imagination, that we can only 
with great effort avoid mixing something of corporeity 
with our most abstracted contemplations. It is, of course, 
with reference to our conceptions of the Deity that this 
weakness becomes most serious. We ascribe 'Intellec- 
tions, Volitions, Decrees, Purposes' and the like to 'that 
nature, which hath nothing in common with us, as being 
infinitely above us'. We may allowably use these and 
similar terms as figurative expressions, 'as himself in his 
Word is pleased to low himself to our capacities ' ; but 

1 Vanity of Dogmatizing, p. 100. 



1 82 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

to conceive of human faculties or affections as being really 
and formally in the Divine Essence is the ' Imposture of 
our Pliancies'. Thus our very Reason itself, provided as 
it is with so much spurious material wherewith to dis- 
course, is bound to be liable to error, indeed the ' Reason 
of the far greatest part of mankind, is but an aggregate of 
mistaken phantasms'. Even the 'highest and most im- 
proved parts of Rationality, are frequently caught in the 
entanglements of a tenacious Imagination'. Glanvill 
infers from this that we should not talk of Reason being 
opposed to Faith ; the disharmony, if any, is only in the 
'Phancy'; true Reason, which is the image of the divine 
wisdom, corrects the impious suggestions of imagination. 
It is unnecessary to attend Glanvill so closely all through 
his catalogue of our errors, especially as we have already 
considered the kindred works of Bacon and Browne, whom 
Glanvill often follows. It will suffice merely to mention 
the ' praecipitancy of our Understandings'; the difficulty 
we find in all close application to the quest for truth ; our 
propensity to judge 'feasibles' impossible, or to ascribe 
effects to wrong causes — particularly natural events to 
supernatural causes. 1 We are misled, too, by our affec- 
tions: 'facile credimus quod volumus\ That opinions and 
beliefs are often merely rationalisations of our instinctive 
preferences or aversions, is a truth which Glanvill per- 
ceived with exceptional clearness for his time : 

i Congruity of Opinions, whether true or false, to our natural 
constitution, is one great incentive to their belief, and reception: 
and in a sense too the complexion of the mind, as well as manners, 
follows the Temperament of the Body.' 2 

Moreover, ' opinions have their Climes and National diver- 
sities ', and we can account in this way for the 'sensual 

1 That this should proceed from the author of Sadducismus Triumphatus is 
characteristic of the period. 

1 Op. dt., p. 121. 



JOSEPH GLANVILL 1 83 

expectations of the Mussel-men' ', the 'fopperies of the de- 
luded Romanists', and other human aberrations, other- 
wise inexplicable. Custom and education fill us with 
prejudices and presuppositions, as we see from the tena- 
city with which men of other races and religions cling to 
their ridiculous delusions; and * 'tis to be feared, that 
Christianity itself by most, that have espoused it, is not 
held by any better tenure'. Interest, too, often fixes the 
colour of our belief, witness that Pope x whose saying it 
was, ' Quantum nobis lucri peperit ilia fabula de Chris to ! ' 

We come now to that portion of the book in which 
Glanvill's controversial purpose declares itself, and to 
which all these sceptical arguments have been leading up, 
namely, the attack on 'peripateticism', and the corre- 
sponding eulogy of the Moderns. Amongst the irra- 
tional prejudices which generate false opinions, slavish 
reverence for ancient authority is one of the most perni- 
cious. In our superstitious dread of going beyond the 
ancients, we 'come short of genuine Antiquity, Truth'. 
Like Montaigne, Glanvill urges that 

' 'tis better to own a Judgment, tho' but with a curta supellex 2 of 
coherent notions; then a memory, like a Sepulchre, furnished 
with a load of broken and discarnate bones.' 3 

Let us away with the pedantry of continual citations from 
'authorities'; 'Authorities alone with me make no num- 
ber, unless Evidence of Reason stand before them'. The 
peripatetic philosophy has acquired and retained an 
authority above all others ; it has indeed so much absorbed 
our veneration that we have overlooked other and more 
fruitful schools of thought amongst the ancients them- 
selves : 

'Thus the Aristotelian Philosophy hath prevailed; while the 
more excellent Hypotheses of Democrttus and Epicurus have long 

1 I have not ascertained which Pope this was. 

2 Scant equipment. 3 op. cit., p. 143. 



184 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

lain buryed under neglect and obloquy: and for ought I know 
might have slept for ever, had not the ingenuity of this age 
recall'd them from their Urne.'' x 

I have tried to explain (in Chapter 1. above) why the 
hypotheses of Democritus and Epicurus inevitably seemed 
'more excellent' in the seventeenth century. The whole 
direction of interests and demands was then favourable 
to their revival, and we see Glanvill here unconsciously 
illustrating his own statement, just quoted, that 'Con- 
gruity of opinions, whether true or false, to our natural 
constitution, is one great incentive to their belief, and 
reception'. And as long as the 'Congruity' lasts, we 
may add, the hypothesis or opinion will be so persuasive 
as to be mistaken for fact. Beneath all his show of scepti- 
cism, Glanvill believed, I think, almost as firmly in the 
assumptions of the new philosophy as any scholastic 
dogmatist did in his own. 

In attacking the Aristotelian tradition Glanvill evi- 
dently writes as one who is expressing sentiments which 
he knows will find an echo in every heart, at any rate in 
his own circle and country. As we have seen, the repudia- 
tion of scholasticism is a constant refrain in the philo- 
sophical and scientific writers of the age. I need not 
recapitulate what has been suggested above (Chapter 1.) 
as to why this was so generally felt to be necessary; it will 
be enough to indicate the quality of Glanvill's contribu- 
tion to the cause. The philosophy of the schools, then, 
according to him, is 'insignificant' and 'dry', because it 
deals with words, 'creatures of the brain', not with 
'things'. The concepts of modern science, on the other 
hand, such as 'matter', 'particle', 'space', 'location', 
'extension', 'motion', are, it is to be noted, felt by Glan- 
vill, as by his contemporaries, to be things, not 'creatures 
of the brain ' — and this in spite of his special preoccupa- 

1 ibid., p. 146 (cf. above, p. 7). 



JOSEPH GLANVILL 1 8$ 

tion with the weaknesses and limitations of knowledge. 
In their wordy 'digladiations' the schoolmen neglected 
'the more profitable doctrines of the Heavens, Meteors, 
Minerals, Animals', as well as 'the indisputable Mathe- 
maticks, the only Science Heaven hath yet vouchsaPt 
Humanity'. 1 The complaint against Aristotle, as usual, 
is that he 'explains' nothing, but merely restates every 
problem in terms of 'qualities', 'sympathies', 'anti- 
pathies', 'gravity', and the like. Aristotle's explanations 
seem to veto further enquiry by saying, in a roundabout 
way, 'this is so because it is so' : fire burns because it has 
the quality 'heat', the loadstone attracts by 'occult sym- 
pathy', a stone is seen because it emits a 'visible species', 
and so on. In this portion of his argument Glanvill 
echoes Hobbes, even at times striking out a phrase in 
which Hobbes and Browne jostle oddly together: 

'A Schoolman is the Ghost of the Stagirite, in a body of con- 
densed Air: and Thomas but Aristotle sainted.'' 2 

He is with Bacon in his insistence that the Aristotelian 
philosophy is 'inept for New discoveries', and therefore 
serves for no 'use of life'. All arts and professions are 
capable of improvement, and 

'that there is an America of secrets, and unknown Peru of 
Nature, whose discovery would richly advance them, is more 
then conjecture.' 

As long as we stick to Aristotle, 

'we are not likely to reach the Treasures on the other side of the 
Atlantick-. the directing of the World the way to which, is the 
noble end of true Philosophy.' 

The mere sense of the existence of ' the America and un- 
travelled parts of Truth ', 3 aptly symbolised for that age 

1 Cf. Hobbes : ' Geometry, which is the only science that it hath pleased 
God hitherto to bestow on mankind ' (Leviathan, ch. iv.). 

2 op. cit., p. 152. Cf. Hobbes, ' the Papacy is no other than the " ghost " of 
the deceased " Roman Empire " sitting crowned upon the grave thereof '. 

3 Browne's Pseudodoxia, Preface < To the Reader.' 



1 86 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

by the New World, filled the intellectual explorers of the 
seventeenth century with a matchless zest which appears 
in the animation and optimism of their writings. 

Amongst all these complaints against scholasticism, 
which are common to so many of the Moderns of the 
century, Glanvill brings forward another which proves 
that he had grasped with unusual clearness what must 
now be demanded of a theory which should be felt to be 
really explanatory. Scholasticism, he says, left the world 
11 intellectually invisible ',* whereas, as we have seen, the 
effort of Glanvill's time was precisely to visualise the 
hidden processes of Nature on the lines of a mechanical 
model. The schools speak of 'Celestial influences, ele- 
mental combinations, active and passive principles', and 
suchlike dry generalities, but leave us as ignorant as 
before of just what we want to know, namely, the inner 
mechanism of phenomena. The old phrases signified 
ignorance of all but the very effects which called for 
explanation ; the new theory, to be explanatory, must fur- 
nish intellectual diagrams which will make 'visible' what 
the schools were content to leave hidden, or 'occult'. 
The revival of the 'more excellent hypotheses of Demo- 
critus and Epicurus', and the work of Galileo, had made 
it possible to picture a great many phenomena as the result 
of the mechanical inter-relations of atoms ; and those that 
still resisted mechanical solution would probably, it was 
hoped, some day succumb to it. 

'Yea, the most common Phaenomena can be neither known, 
nor improved, without insight 2 into the more hidden frame. 
For Nature works by an Invisible Hand in all things.' 

In Fontenelle's Pluralite des Mondes (1686), a popular ex- 
position of Cartesianism, the same topic is treated of, but 
this time with the refined insouciance and good breeding 

1 op. cit., p. 172. a ibid., p. 180 (my capitals). 



JOSEPH GLANVILL 1 87 

of the honntte homme. Here the philosopher, who is repre- 
sented as instilling the principles of true philosophy into 
the willing ear of a fair Countess, makes use of the follow- 
ing illustration : 

[It has just been remarked that 'we see things quite otherwise 
than as they are.'] 

'Upon this I fancy to myself, that Nature very much re- 
sembleth an Opera; where you stand you do not see the Stage 
as really it is; but it is plac'd with advantage and all the Wheels 
and Movements are hid, to make the Representation the more 
agreeable. . . . An Engineer in the Pit is affected with what 
doth not touch you. . . . This Engineer then is like a Philo- 
sopher, though the difficulty is greater on the Philosopher's part, 
the Machines of the Theatre being nothing so curious as those 
of Nature, which disposeth her Wheels and Springs so out of 
sight, that we have been long a guessing at the movement of the 
Universe.' 

Let us suppose, says Fontenelle, that the opera is Phaeton^ 
and that several philosophers of various schools are sit- 
ting in the audience watching the protagonist ascending 
through the air in his chariot. The scholastically-inclined 
doctors would without doubt explain Phaeton's extra- 
ordinary movements as due to 'magnetic virtue', or the 
'love' or 'affinity' of the chariot for the top of the theatre. 

'But now comes M. Descartes, with some of the Moderns, 
and they tell you Phaeton ascends because a greater weight than 
he descends; so that now we do not believe a body can move 
without it is push'd and forc'd by another body, and as it were 
drawn by Cords, so that nothing can rise or fall but by means of 
a Counterpoise. ... I perceive, said the Countess, Philosophy is 
now become very Mechanical. So mechanical, said I, that I fear 
we shall quickly be asham'd of it ; they will have the World to 
be in great, what a watch is in little ; which is very regular, and 
depends only upon the just disposing of the several parts of the 
movement.' 1 

1 Translated by John Glanvill ( apparently unrelated to Joseph Glanvill), 
1688. The translation was republished by the Nonesuch Press in 1929. (Cf. 
motto to Chapter 1. above.) 



1 88 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

Shaking the dust of the Schools off his feet, Glanvill 
now launches out in rapturous praise of the 'glorious 
Undertakers' of his own day, and allows his imagination 
to riot in prophetic visions of the wonders to come, many 
of which have since been realised, to an extent probably 
beyond his anticipation. He foretells not only aviation — 

'To them, that come after us, it may be as ordinary to buy a 
pair of wings to fly into remotest Regions; as now a pair of Boots 
to ride a Journey.'' 

— but even 'wireless': 

'And to conferr at the distance of the Indies by Sympathetic k 
conveyances, may be as usual, to future times, as to us in a 
litter ary correspondence.' x 

We may see, too, deserts turned into paradise by irriga- 
tion: the 'restauration of gray hairs to Juvenility', and 
voyages to the 'Southern unknown Tracts', or even pos- 
sibly to the moon. Could Glanvill have seen the whole 
future in his vision, one might guess that his naive exulta- 
tion at the opening of the scientific Pandora-box would 
have been exceeded by the horrified astonishment with 
which he would have contemplated the world which 
actually possessed these and other 'marvels'. The exist- 
ence of this strain of tense expectancy in the seventeenth 
century consciousness must be taken count of if we would 
understand their notions of 'Truth'. A 'true' theory, 
at that time, was one which would add all this and more 
glory to the Kingdom of Man. 

Glanvill concludes this section, much in the manner of 
Browne, by an obeisance to 'Divinity'. Though in Philo- 
sophy he is a 'seeker', and sceptical of authority, in 
Divinity he hopes to entertain no opinion less than sixteen 
hundred years old. 

From this point onwards Glanvill 's argument widens 

1 Vanity of Dogmatizing, p. 182. 



JOSEPH GLANVILL I 89 

into a general condemnation of all philosophical arrogance 
or 'opinionative confidence', and we begin to see still 
more clearly that his scepticism is a double-edged weapon, 
as serviceable against the presumptuous modern as against 
the jejune scholastic. Or, we might say, he begins to 
reveal by what channels his scientific enlightenment is 
linked with 'credulity', and we are provided with one 
more illustration of the truth of Browne's remark that 
'by acquainting our Reason how unable it is to display 
the visible and obvious effects of nature, it becomes more 
humble and submissive unto the subtleties of faith'. 1 
Glanvill does not in this book work out all the implica- 
tions of his argument, but he reveals the foundations on 
which his belief in witchcraft and apparitions rested. It 
makes one a little giddy to watch this convinced ' Mod- 
ernist' mining away at the foundations of all certainty. 
He even anticipates Hume's critique on our ideas of 
'causation', 2 urging that we cannot be certain that any 
one thing is the cause of another, since we are aware only 
of 'concomitances' — as the cock was who thought his 
crow produced the dawn. We must not judge Nature 
by the analogy of the mind, or judge that what seems im- 
possible to us must necessarily be so in Nature. Never- 
theless, it is to be observed that Glanvill here keeps the 
argument strictly within the region of the 'natural', and 
suggests explanations on scientific lines for the rarities 
he mentions. It is at this point, 3 for instance, that the 
story of the Scholar Gypsy is introduced, its purpose being 
to demonstrate the telepathic power of the 'imagination'. 
The Scholar, on being rediscovered by some of his Oxford 
friends, undertakes to prove to them that the 'mystery' of 
the gypsies is not all imposture, and that he has mastered 

1 Rel. Med., i. sect. 10. 

2 A point duly noted by Leslie Stephen, in his article on Glanvill in the Diet, 
of Nat. Biog. 

8 op. cit., pp. 196 ff. 



190 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

some part of their ancient wisdom. Placing them in a 
room of the inn where they have met, he retires to an- 
other part of the house, declaring that he will repeat their 
conversation to them correctly when he returns. He 
duly performs this, explaining to his astonished com- 
panions that he had done it by sheer exertion of his own 
mental energy, himself having 'dictated' the whole con- 
versation to them by what we should now call telepathy. 
It would be 'vain dogmatism' to reject such a 'well- 
authenticated' story as this because of its seeming 'im- 
possibility'. Glanvill is anxious to show that his own 
acceptance of the marvel is not due to vulgar credulity, 
but is based on the conviction that a 'philosophic' explan- 
ation for such things probably exists, if we are not too 
prejudiced to look for it. He accordingly propounds two 
hypotheses to remove what appears to be the element 
of 'impossibility' in the Scholar Gypsy's performance, 
namely, the apparent action at a distance. One is 'that 
of a Mundane Soul, lately reviv'd by that incomparable 
Platonist and Cartesian, Dr H. More\ which supposes a 
'spirit of Nature' or anima mundi as the medium of trans- 
mission ; the other — ' if any would rather have a Mechani- 
cal account' — is that 'the Aether', that is, a 'liquid 
medium' of 'subtil matter' which is supposed to fill all 
space, receives the motions from the brain of the Scholar 
and transmits them to those of his friends. ' 'Tis only 
an hint of the possibility of mechanically solving the Phae- 
nomenonj he modestly concludes; but he has said enough 
to show how the scientific attitude may be preserved even 
towards the 'marvellous'. His polemic is beginning to 
be diverted away from the schoolmen, and towards the 
unbelieving worldlings of Restoration England. Glan- 
vill's readiness to accept the 'spirit of Nature' as explana- 
tory while scornfully rejecting the 'active principles', 
'celestial influences', and other phrases of the schools, 



JOSEPH GLANVILL 191 

illustrates admirably how 'explanation' often consists 
merely in a change of nomenclature. To us, all alike 
are sounds signifying the philosopher's inability, after 
a certain point, to render causation 'intellectually 
visible'. 

Fired by his theme — that what seems impossible to us 
may not be so in Nature — and stimulated, too, by the 
thought of triumphs to be achieved 'when Magical His- 
tory shall be enlarged by riper inspections', Glanvill 
adduces a few more 'probable impossibilities' of a similar 
type, which may be mentioned in passing to illustrate the 
quality of his scientific faith. There is, for instance, com- 
munication by 'sympathised dials', that is, by means of 
needles touched by the same magnets. If two persons, 
each possessing one such needle set in a lettered dial, will 
agree upon a time, one of them may send a message at 
'very distant removes' by moving his needle to the various 
letters required, when its 'fellow' will move in correspond- 
ence. Even though this particular experiment might fail, 
Glanvill maintains (with some show of right instinct, as we 
now see) that on similar lines, at least, communication at 
a distance will one day be possible, 'without unwarrant- 
able assistance from Daemoniack correspondence'. He 
has heard, too, of communication by 'sympathised hands', 
where a piece of one person's flesh is grafted on to that of 
his friend and vice versa, so that pin-pricks may be ' sym- 
pathetically' felt and messages sent thereby. This is 
attested by the true story of a 'Gentleman' who requested 
his ' Chirurgeon ' to amputate one of his arms, which was 
apparently quite healthy, explaining that the hand was 
sympathised with that of a friend, and that the friend 
having died the hand would now rot away. Glanvill, 
covering his credulity with an unusually impressive dis- 
play of Brownese latinity (it is in this chapter that he 
refers to the Pseudodoxia), argues that the Gentleman was 



192 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

justified in his surmise, for 'that which was so sensibly 
affected with so inconsiderable a touch, in all likelyhood 
would be more immuted, by those greater alterations 
which are in Cadaverous Solutions'. Lastly, there is the 
' sympathetick medicine' for wounds invented by Sir 
Kenelm Digby, the principle of which consisted in anoint- 
ing not the wound itself, but the weapon which had 
caused it, or the 'cruentate cloth*. Of the truth of this 
marvel Sir K. Digby has given unexceptionable proof, and 
he has also 'explained' it 'by Mechanism', assuming that 
there are 

i atomical aporrheas, which passing from the Cruentate cloth or 
weapon to the wound, and being incorporated with the particles 
of the salve carry them in their embraces to the affected part: 
where the medicinal atomes entering together with the effluviums 
of the bloud, do by their subtle insinuation better effect the cure, 
then can be done by any grosser Application.' * 

Whether the anima mundi be the true explanation, though 
it be the more 'desperate', or the mechanical, which has 
'more of ingenuity than solid satisfaction', the 'facts' still 
remain to prove Glanvill's case against ignorant unbelief. 
The moral of all this, once more, is that the deeper springs 
of causation remain hidden from us, and we can only guess 
at them by analogy with 'palpable causalities, conceiving 
them like those within the sensible Horizon'. 'To say 
that the -principles of Nature must needs be such as our 
Philosophy makes them, is to set bounds to Omnipotence'. 
Even the 'Grand Secretary of Nature, the miraculous 
Des-Cartes\ who has so infinitely outdone all his pre- 
decessors, intends his theories to be considered only as 
provisional working hypotheses, and never pretends that 
things must necessarily be as he has supposed them to be. 
In reading this book one has to pause continually to take 
one's bearings. The argument is directed against undue 

1 Vanity of Dogmatizing, pp. 207-8. 



JOSEPH GLANVILL 1 93 

certainty, but it often has more the air of a plea for the 
universal applicability of the mechanical explanations. 
Glanvill seems almost to admit this when, after using the 
flower-in-the-crannied-wall argument, and our ignorance 
whether our neighbour does not see 'blue' when we see 
'white', in further confutation of the dogmatists, he 
admits that he has not meant all this quite seriously: he 
has merely 'play'd with the Dogmatist in a personated 
Scepticism'. 'Opinionative confidence', we may agree 
with him, is 'the effect of ignorance'. But when he 
declares that 

'Opinions are the Rattles of immature intellects, but the ad- 
vanced Reasons have out-grown them,' 

we may suspect that the 'opinions' are the 'Reason' of 
other ages, and 'Reason' the 'opinions' of his own. 
Nevertheless his intellectual disinterestedness is remark- 
able for his century, and it is this quality which gives him 
the wisdom to write that while 

'they that never peep'd beyond the common belief in which 
their easie understandings were at first indoctrinated, are in- 
dubitably assur'd of the Truth, and comparative excellency of 
their receptions . . . the larger Souls, that have travail'd the 
divers Climates of Opinions, are more cautious in their resolves, 
and more sparing to determine.' x 

The book concludes with an eloquent defence of Philo- 
sophy as the noblest and most heavenly of all pursuits. 
The ignorant think it atheistic because it refuses to ac- 
knowledge a miracle in every extraordinary effect, whereas 
it is in reality the best friend of religion. It accustoms the 
soul to withdraw itself from the level of ordinary experi- 
ence, and expatiate in the ampler air of reason. In spite 
of all that has been said of its limitations, it is folly to 
neglect what knowledge we can attain here below, just 

1 ibid., p. 227. 



194 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

because full knowledge is postponed to a future state. 
All this defence, Glanvill concludes, is supremely appli- 
cable to the Cartesian philosophy, of which he prophesies, 
in his peroration, that its virtues 

'will bear it down to Posterity with a Glory \ that shall know no 
term, but the Universal mines.'' 



2. Sadducismus Triumphatus 1 . 

We have seen enough of Glanvill's sceptical principles 
to understand by how natural a development they could be 
used in defence of the Faith. If it be further asked, What 
has the defence of the Faith to do with witches and witch- 
craft? the reply is, as already suggested, 2 that in the 
seventeenth century disbelief in a spirit-world was sup- 
posed to be associated with the materialistic temper which 
disbelieved in a spiritual world, and consequently denied 
the immortality of the soul and all the truths of religion. 
It may seem a roundabout way of defending religion to 
demonstrate the reality of Satan; but in Glanvill's time 
believers were just awakening to the danger that science 
might abolish the category of the supernatural altogether, 
and it seemed the shortest way of preventing this to insist 
upon that class of supernatural phenomena which most of 
the scoffers themselves acknowledged, if not in their day- 
light theories, then subconsciously, when alone in the 
dark. 3 Moreover, it must be remembered that since the 
period of divine miracles was assumed by Protestantism 
to have closed with the Apostolic Age, and since the rela- 

1 First published as Philosophical Considerations Touching Witches and Witch- 
craft, 1666. The fourth edition (1668) was called A Blow at Modern Sadducism ; 
and in 1681, a year after Glanvill's death, this was republished as Sadducismus 
Triumphatus, with the addition of More's True Notion of a Spirit, translated from 
his Enchiridion Metaphysicum. 

2 See above, p. 168. 

8 Cf. Hobbes, who is said to have been afraid of the dark. 



JOSEPH GLANVILL 1 95 

tions between God and man had been still further 
rationalised by the most recent theologians, the field of 
supernatural interventions had become almost exclusively 
the province of the Devil. Witchcraft thus furnished the 
only available contemporary evidence of a tangible kind 
for the existence of supernatural activity. Glanvill knew 
that there were more direct methods of defending the 
attitude of faith : was there not the ontological proof of 
the incomparable Descartes, besides the evidence of 
Nature, and of the human heart? But he saw that in the 
age of the Royal Society the climate of opinion was becom- 
ing more and more unfavourable to belief in witchcraft, 
and he roused himself to secure what seemed to him ' the 
outworks of Religion, and to regain a parcel of Ground 
which bold Infidelity hath invaded'. So completely did 
he see the existence of witches and the immortality of the 
soul as the same issue, that he describes his purpose simply 
as being to defend the belief in a future life against ' those 
who will stupidly believe that they shall die like Beasts, 
that they may live like them'. 1 Thus we get the queer 
spectacle of a Fellow of the Royal Society lashing his age 
for a type of 'unbelief which Lecky and others celebrate 
as one of the finest triumphs of the scientific movement. 
He carries his campaign against 'dogmatizing* so far as to 
attack the latent dogmas of 'scepticism' itself. 'That 
there are no witches or apparitions' seems to him a piece 
of unwarrantable cocksureness, and to accept such a 
current assumption merely because the climate of opinion 
has encouraged it, is the mark of an unphilosophic 
mind. 

* Atheism is begun in Sadducism: And those that dare not 
bluntly say, There is No GOD, content themselves (for a fair step 
and Introduction) to deny that there are Spirits and Witches.' 2 

1 Sadducismus (1700 edition), prefatory Letter to the Duke of Richmond. 

2 ibid., Preface. 



196 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

Such infidels are not common amongst the 'meer vulgar', 
but abound amongst their 'superiors'. 

'And those that know anything of the World, know that 
most of the looser Gentry, and the small Pretenders to Philosophy 
and Wity are generally deriders of the belief of Witches and 
Apparitions.'' 

And this is no mere indifferent matter which may be left 
to opinion (like the question of the earth's motion); it 
'hath a core in it that is worse than Heresie'. Glanvill 
knows that the obstacle he has to contend with is 

'a mighty confidence grounded upon nothing, which swaggers and 
huffs, and swears there are no Witches.' 

After these prefatory remarks Glanvill offers his con- 
siderations about Witchcraft, arranged in a series of 
answers to objections, as his contribution to the worsting 
of Sadducism and the defeat of the Devil's last stratagem, 
his pretence that 'there is no such thing as himself, but 
that Fear and Fancy make Devils now, as they did Gods 
of old'. 1 

1 . The first objection he answers is, that the notion of 
'spirit' is itself an absurdity. If so, then the notions of 
God, of the soul as distinct from matter, and thus of 
immortality as well, are also absurdities. It would follow 
that the world was 'jumbled into this elegant and orderly 
Fabrick by Chance'; it would also follow that our ideas 
are merely material motions. But even granting that 
'immaterial substance' is a contradiction, is it not reason- 
able to suppose that the air and all the regions above us — 
'the Upper Stories of the Universe' — are peopled with 
intelligences? The microscope has shown us that the 
infinitely little is aswarm with life ; why suppose otherwise 
of the infinitely great? 

2. That the actions attributed to Witches are absurd 
or impossible. The more absurd, the likelier not to be 

1 Sadducismus, p. 2. Cf. Browne's similar view, referred to above, p. 55. 



JOSEPH GLANVILL 1 97 

faked! As for impossibility, how can we 'measure the 
World of Spirits by the narrow rules of our own impotent 
Beings'? 'We are ignorant of the most obvious things 
about us,' and so on, in the vein of The Vanity of Dogma- 
tizing. Glanvill then tries to show (for he never forgets 
the Royal Society, even at his most credulous) not how 
these marvels do take place, but how they may reasonably 
be conceived to happen, without contravening 'the rules 
of Reason and Philosophy'. And what even we can con- 
ceive as being done by the laws of physics, could a fortiori 
be effected by the superior power and knowledge of 
spirits. Glanvill assumes that the devils always operate by 
setting in motion the existing mechanisms of nature, and 
that their technique can therefore be conjecturally pic- 
tured as well as that of the Scholar Gypsy, or the action 
of Digby's sympathetick medicine. In this way he pre- 
serves his scientific integrity. Indeed he is never un- 
scientific, for to believe in a spirit-world actively mingling 
in our affairs was then the most obvious commonplace; 
one could assume it, as one could assume the world-soul, 
or the animal spirits, as a scientific postulate, where 
mechanism failed to suffice. Thus he argues that if, as 
philosophers nearly unanimously agree, the soul is separ- 
able from the body without death, we can easily under- 
stand that a spirit could convey a witch's soul through the 
atmosphere clothed in air or 'some more subtile Matter', 
to the place of rendezvous. And that marks or injuries 
sustained by this aerial body should be transferred to the 
grosser body is no more incomprehensible than the ' signa- 
tures ' stamped upon the foetus by the mother's imagination . 

3. 'That 'tis very improbable that the Devil, who is a wise 
and mighty Spirit, should be at the beck of a poor Hag, and 
have so little to do, as to attend the Errands and impotent 
Lusts of a silly Old Woman.' * 

1 ibid., p. 11. 



198 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

The reply to this objection (it will be noticed that Glan- 
vill lets his objector speak with force and point) is brief: 
the 'sagess and grandure' of the Prince of Darkness need 
not be brought into question, there are plenty of minor 
devils for these low tasks. 

4. That as it is commonly children who are the victims 
of the supposed evil practices, to believe in these stories 
is virtually to accuse Providence of neglecting the 
innocent, whom it should surely have under its especial 
care. 

Glanvill's reply to this plea is significant: it is to the 
effect that there are, for that matter, plenty of other things 
for which we could also 'accuse Providence' — in a word, 
the miseries and injustices of human life; and vet 'we 
believe there is a beauty and harmony and goodness in that 
Providence^ though we cannot unriddle it in particular 
instances*. x Providence has not secured children against 
other disasters — 'we accuse 7/ not when a whole Town 
full of Innocents falls a Victim to the rage and ferity of 
barbarous Executioners in Wars and Massacres* And what 
of the doctrine, cheerfully swallowed by many of the 
devout, that children are heirs of hell at birth ? Glanvill 
also seems to think — and here he is in distinguished com- 
pany — that he can assert eternal providence, and justify 
the ways of God to children, by laying all the blame on 
the witch instead of on the devil. He thence launches 
forth on a characteristic attempt to show that 'fascina- 
tion' can be mechanically explained, on the analogy of 
contagion in disease, as produced by the passage of 
'particles' from the witch to the victim, 

* which way of acting is ordinary and familiar in all natural 
Efficiencies. And 'tis now past question, that Nature for the 
most part acts by subtile Streams and Apporreaea's of minute 
Particles, which pass from one Body to another.' 2 

1 ibid., p. 13. % ibid. 



JOSEPH GLANVILL 1 99 

If devils can hurt us at the instigation of a witch, why 
should they not do so with no such intermediary, and thus 
annoy us continually? To this and other such objections 
Glanvill's stock reply is a characteristic appeal to our 
ignorance ; how can we expect to fathom ' the projects of 
the Dark Kingdom', 'the Policy of Hell'? And yet he 
is always ready to 'suggest' how these matters may be 
'conceived' ; it is perhaps the lower orders of the infernal 
society who do most of the chaffering for souls, and these 
degenerate natures may be eager to satisfy their lust for 
dominion by catching whomsoever they most easily can 
(e.g. 'poor and miserable old women'), and making them 
their vassals. It is vain to argue too, that the effects of 
witchcraft are produced by 'imagination' in the witch or 
in the observer; whoever believes that 'imagination' can 
convey, for instance, pins and nails into the human body, 
believes something more incredible than sorcery itself. 
At the same time we should expect to find the discon- 
tented, the melancholy and the imaginative the readiest 
victims of devils, since spirits probably act upon us not 
directly, with their 'naked essence', but by appropriate 
instruments, and the 'imagination', especially of those 
in whom that faculty predominated over reason, would be 
the aptest of instruments. If, unaided, the imagination 
of the Scholar Gypsy could work such wonders, what 
might we not expect of imaginations fanned by breathings 
from Hell? 

5. In answering the question why spirits work upon 
so few, and appear so seldom, Glanvill states his belief, 
which is comparable with that of More and of Milton, 
that spirits may be 'embodied'. The 

1 Analogy of Nature, which useth not to make precipitous leaps 
from one thing to another, but usually proceeds by orderly steps 

and gradations, 1 

1 ibid., p. 23. 



200 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

suggests that there must be an order of beings between 
us, 'who are so deeply plung'd in the grossest Matter', 
and the pure unbodied intelligences, which are the highest 
order of created Beings. If this be so, no spirit would be 
happy out of its own medium, but would be pained by 
the need to compress its tenuous body into a 'visible con- 
sistence'; and this would naturally apply more to good 
spirits (whose visits are notoriously brief) than to evil ones, 
who are more 'foeculent and gross', and hence more easily 
reducible to visibility. These conjectures about spirits 
are interesting because they show a disposition both to 
believe in a supernatural world, and at the same time 
to visualise or 'imagine' it, with the result that the 
Spirits inevitably become phantasms invested with ethe- 
real 'bodies'. Further, Glanvill's ensuing comparisons 
between the heavenly and the infernal forces in their 
relations with man illumine for us the contemporary state 
of belief about the different grades of the supernatural. 
These comparisons arise when he is trying to answer the 
objection that if fiends traffic with the wicked, then why 
do not angels commune with the good? First he says 
that they do, but he has no universal and contemporary 
testimony to confirm this; instead, he appeals somewhat 
desperately to Deuteronomy, Origen on Jeremiah, and 
the Book of Daniel. But he relies mainly upon the 
Baconian principle — the foundation-stone of all science — 
that God works in nature by second causes alone, whatever 
the Devil may do. It is as if he felt that a more dignified 
procedure befitted the governing-classes of the universe, 
whereas the lower and criminal orders of the spirit-hier- 
archy might quite well employ cruder methods. To sup- 
port them in their faith and conduct of life the righteous 
have all the consolations of religion and the means of 
grace, the mediation of the Saviour and the ministration 
of the Spirit — 'any of which are more than the apparition 



JOSEPH GLANVILL 201 

of an angel*. 1 He goes further, and declares that such 
an apparition 

'would indeed be a great gratification of the Animal Life, but it 
would render our Faith less Noble and less Generous, were it 
frequently so assisted.' 2 

The fact seems to be that in approaching the region of 
religious experience Glanvill insensibly falls into modes of 
thought and of language very different from those he 
uses in dealing with sorcery. Centuries of theological 
insight had purged the Christian supernatural of cruder 
elements, and by the seventeenth century 'angels', in 
spite of More and Milton, were really a superfluity of the 
faith. The official 'supernatural' of religion occupied the 
place of honour in the universe and in the minds of the 
faithful; within this region, spiritual and 'rational' con- 
ceptions were predominant. It was the blessedness of 
faith to believe in this, but not to 'see'. But side by side 
with or concealed beneath this Christian consciousness, 
there still persisted mental habits more deep-rooted and 
more ancient, which expressed themselves in the pictorial 
beliefs Glanvill is defending. The religious tradition had 
itself brought this about by rationalising its own field and 
deliberately handing over the 'pagan', the sub-rational, to 
the Devil. It is, of course, easier to think pictorially than 
abstractedly, hence the vitality of the popular demonology. 
Thus it comes about that whereas faith can dispense with 
the luxury of angels (and Glanvill writes a beautiful Cam- 
bridge-Platonic chapter 3 on the possibility, and the con- 
ditions, of direct communication between purified souls 
and God, rendering angelic intermediaries unnecessary), 

1 ibid., p. 26 (my italics). 

2 ibid., p. 26. Cf. Coleridge : ' It (the existence of God) could not 
be intellectually more evident without becoming morally less effective ; without 
counteracting its own end by sacrificing the life of faith to the cold mechanism 
of a worthless because compulsory assent '. (Biog. Lit., ch. x.) 

3 ibid., sect. xiii. 



202 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

wickedness still keeps its demons. And the righteous 
keep them too, as we see, though for opposite reasons. 
It is odd to find that because Glanvill does not himself 
want angels, he allows himself, in this direction, to share 
the 'enlightenment' of his age, and to use the same sort 
of language about stories of angelic intervention as he 
condemns where witchcraft is concerned : 

'for my part I scorn the ordinary Tales of Prodigies, which pro- 
ceed from superstitious Fears, and unacquaintance with Nature. ,' x 

However, in this case he deems it prudent to cover his 
retreat by a screen of soft phrases : ' I know not why it 
may not be conjectured', 'it seems to me not unreason- 
able to believe', and so forth. 

6. I shall only refer to his treatment of one further 
objection, the 'last and shrewdest', which is that if the 
Devil can work miracles, how can we distinguish them 
from true miracles, the great inducement to faith ? 
Glanvill first gives it as his opinion — hardly consistent, 
perhaps, with his oft-repeated denial that we can pro- 
nounce with any certainty about the ways of God or of 
the Devil — that in matters of such concernment Provi- 
dence does not allow us to be deceived. If the events of 
the whole gospel narrative were the outcome of devilry, 
then indeed we are deceived in all things, and are of all 
men the most miserable. But Glanvill has a stronger 
argument in reserve; he is prepared to subordinate 
miracles to the truth or morality they illustrate. This is 
the true mark or 'signature', showing whether a miracle 
be divine or diabolical. A definition of 'miracle' being 
needed, Glanvill lays down that it is not simply an 'un- 
accountable' event, for so are the 'magnalia' of nature; 
neither is it an act or event 'beyond mere Nature', for we 

1 ibid., p. z-j. 



JOSEPH GLANVILL 203 

do not know the limits of 'Nature'; miracles are, then, 
wonderful or unaccountable acts performed by holy- 
persons to confirm some divine doctrine. Strictly, then, 
it is the divine doctrine (already known) which proves the 
miracle to be genuine, rather than the miracle which 
proves the doctrine to be true. 

Glanvill's proofs from Scripture do not concern us, 
though it is important to realise that the authority of 
Scripture was then supposed to be on the side of belief 
in witchcraft. Neither need we speak of the 'choice col- 
lection of modern relations', which fills the greater portion 
of his Second Part. In concluding these remarks on 
Glanvill, I would point out that in order to obtain a 
balanced idea of his outlook one should pass immediately 
from his stories about the Demon of Tedworth, the dis- 
turbances at Mr Mompesson's House, or the villainous 
Feats of that rampant Hag Margaret Agar (of Brewham 
in the County of Somerset), to his tranquil utterances 
about the reasonableness of Christianity in an essay like 
The Agreement of Reason and Religion?- It is here that 
we get the Glanvill of the Royal Society, exhibiting 
what might be called the official foundations of his belief. 
What he says in this capacity shows him in full accord 
with the 'rational' tone which became universal in the 
religious writings of the later seventeenth century. He 
reveals his mastery of the technique of proving religion 
by pure reason, certainly 'without unwarrantable assist- 
ance from Daemoniack correspondence', and almost — in 
the deistical manner — without unwarrantable assistance 
from Revelation. The fundamentals of natural religion, 
he says, in a passage which recalls Lord Herbert of Cher- 
bury, are all proved by Reason, and by Reason alone. 
The first article of belief, the existence of God, is proved 
by Reason, not by Revelation, for the very notion of 

1 Essay v. in Essays on Several Important Subjects,i6j6 (cited above, pp. 171-2). 



204 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

Revelation presupposes a God who reveals. Similarly it 
is Reason which proves the authority of Scripture by 
showing good cause for believing it to be from God, by 
demonstrating the truth of its testimony, and the harmony 
of its teachings with those of nature. If we abandon 
Reason, we abandon the firmest support of religion, and 
shall find ourselves defenceless against Rome and against 
the Enthusiasts. Reason he defines as the principles of 
thought implanted in us, or, more fully, the 

' Fundamental Notices, that God hath implanted in our Souls; 
such as arise not from external Objects, nor particular Humours 
or Imaginations, but are immediately lodged in our Minds; 
independent upon other Principles or Deductions ; commanding 
a sudden assent, and acknowledged by all sober Mankind.' 

Amongst the principles of Reason are the familiar pro- 
positions: That God is a being of all perfection, That a 
thing cannot be and not be, That a whole is greater than 
any of its parts, and so forth. 'Conclusions' are 

'those other Notices that are inferred rightly from these ; and by 
their help, from the Observations of Sense ; And the remotest of 
them that can be conceived, if it be duly inferred from the Prin- 
ciples of Reason, or rightly circumstantiated Sense, is as well to 
be reckoned a Part or Branch of Reason, as the more immediate 
Conclusions, that are Principles in respect of those distant 
Truths.' 1 

The only comment I will make at this point is, that in 
phrases like 'commanding a sudden assent', 'acknow- 
ledged by all sober Mankind' and 'implanted in our souls', 
we get a hint of how 'Reason', like its yoke-fellow 
'Nature', could become equivalent, in less guarded 
moments, to 'the usual assumptions of contemporary 
good sense' — or more simply (to conclude with Glan- 
vill's own most famous phrase) the 'Climate of Opinion'. 

1 op. cit., pp. 5-6. 



CHAPTER X 



The Heroic Poem in a Scientific Age 



THE CLIMATE OF OPINION 

IT happens that the development of English poetry 
since the Renaissance has coincided with one of the 
most determined and prolonged efforts ever made 
by man to arrive at a 'true' world-view along scientific 
lines. In the seventeenth century, as we have abundantly 
seen, the boundaries between 'truth' and 'fiction' were 
being laid down with unexampled energy, rapidity and 
precision. I have already suggested that during the 
period of such a systematic effort to displace older world- 
pictures by 'philosophical' conceptions the position of 
poetry was likely to be precarious. For in poetry thought 
is not pure, it is working in alliance with the feelings and 
the will. In Bacon's phrase, it 'subjects the shows of 
things to the desires of the mind' — which is the exact 
reverse of the process called science. It can thus appear, 
and often has appeared to certain kinds of philosophers, 
as the enemy of 'truth'. Something has been said in 
foregoing chapters to indicate that in the seventeenth 
century these developments did actually lead to a lower- 
ing of the prestige of poetry. The degree of assurance 
with which serious poetry can be written at any period 
depends upon the prevailing state of certainty or scepti- 
cism about ultimate issues. The tone, the rhythm and 
the imagery of poetry vary according to the stage reached 
in the development of belief and unbelief. A poet, that 
is, who feels that his constructions are 'true' as well as 
agreeable or expressive will write a different sort of poetry 

205 



206 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

from that of one who feels that they are 'fictions' — mis- 
representations of actuality, even though they be symbols 
of it; and different again from that of one for whom the 
boundaries of ' truth ' and ' fiction ' have either never yet 
become clear, or else have become less clear than they 
once seemed. I have presented some evidence to show 
that in our century 'truth' was being handed over more 
and more to 'philosophy', and to prose as its proper 
medium, while poetry was being reduced to the role of 
catering for delight by means of agreeable images from 
which we derived pleasure without being 'cozened by 
the fiction'. 1 Some further corroboration may not be 
amiss at this stage in order to make the situation clearer. 

i. Thomas Sprat's History of the Royal Society. 

I know of no work which more fully illustrates the 
climate of opinion in post-Restoration days than Sprat's 
History of the Royal Society. This work, which has some- 
thing in common with Glanvill's celebrations of the 
triumphs of modern learning — though it is clearly the 
product of a much blunter sensibility — is full of jubila- 
tion over the 'exantlation of truth', and of panegyrics 
upon those who 'remov'd the rubbish' of ages, and 'freed 
our understandings from the charms of vain apparitions'. 

'And we may well guess that the absolute perfection of the 
True Philosophy is not now far off, seeing this first great and 
necessary preparation for its coming is already taken off our 
hands.' 2 

In several passages which clearly reveal the temper of 
his time and of his circle, Sprat justifies the ways of prose 
in a 'learned and inquisitive age', and sets aside with a 
confident and heavy hand the vain fancies of the poets. 
Learning originated, he tells us, in the East and in Greece; 

1 Cf. above, p. 87. 

2 Sprat's History of the R. S., p. 29. (The first ed appeared in 1667. 
My references are to the second ed., 1702.) 



THE HEROIC POEM IN A SCIENTIFIC AGE 207 

and the primitive philosophers, in order to render their 
views comprehensible and acceptable to their hearers, 'set 
them off with the mixture of Fables, and the ornaments of 
Fancy'. Hence it came about that 

'the first masters of knowledge among them were as well Poets, 
as Philosophers; for Orpheus, Linus, Musaeus and Homer, 
first softened men's natural rudeness, and by the charms of their 
Numbers, allur'd them to be instructed by the severer doctrines 
of Solon, Thales and Pythagoras. This was a course that was 
useful at first, when men were to be delightfully deceiv'd to their 
own good. But perhaps it left some ill influence, on the whole 
Philosophy of their Successors ; and gave the Grecians occasion 
ever after of exercising their wit, and their imagination, about 
the works of Nature, more than was consistent with a sincere 
Inquiry into them.' J 

The notion of the early poet as 'vates' was of course a 
commonplace of the Renaissance, but it is interesting to 
find the seventeenth century emphasising the scientific in 
addition to the moral, theological or political meanings 
which were supposed to be wrapped up in the fables of 
antiquity. Bacon, who regarded poetry as 'fained his- 
tory', whether Narrative, Dramatic or Allegorical (satire, 
elegy, epigram, ode, etc., he relegates to the 'arts of 
speech'), sets down 'the philosophy of ancient fables' as 
the only deficiency of learning in the province of poetry. 2 
He specifies the functions of 'parabolical' or 'allusive* 
poetry as being either to render something explicit to the 
unlearned, or the opposite — namely, to envelop mys- 
teries and keep them from the profane. 3 Yet, after giving 
a few 'explanations' of well-known fables, he adds: 

'Nevertheless, in many the like encounters, I do rather think 
that the fable was first, and the exposition devised, than that the 
moral was first, and thereupon the fable framed.' 4 

Homer, he thinks, 'had no such inwardness in his own 

1 ibid., p. 6. 2 De Aug., bk. ii. ch. xiii. 

3 Cf. Ad<v. of Learning, bk. ii. ch. iv. * ibid. 



208 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

meaning'. But Bacon had a further interesting sugges- 
tion; the fables themselves, he concludes, may have 
embodied the Wisdom of the Ancients even if Homer or 
Hesiod did not know or intend to convey it. The fables 
are much older than the poets who versified them, and 
many of them are to be regarded 

'not as the product of the age, or invention of the poets, but as 
sacred relics, gentle whispers, and the breath of better times, that 
from the traditions of more ancient nations came, at length, into 
the flutes and trumpets of the Greeks.' 1 

Bacon was so certain of this that he not only devoted a 
long chapter in the De Augmentis 2 to decoding the fables 
of Pan, Perseus and Bacchus, but also composed his 
Wisdom of the Ancients, in which thirty-one classical fables 
are rationalised into moral, political or philosophical 
lessons. This dream of a primeval golden age and its 
'wisdom', like the doctrine of divine inspiration in Scrip- 
ture, allows its exponents to see depth on depth of mean- 
ing in their texts, and Bacon, in expounding his fables, 
exhibits a great deal of his own wisdom, if not that of the 
ancients. It is hardly necessary to give examples, but to 
illustrate the treatment of primitive material by an acute 
but unhistorical intelligence, it may suffice to mention that 
Pan, who stands for Nature, or 'the nature of things', has 
'horns broad at the roots but narrow and shorn a-top, 
because the nature of all things seem pyramidal : for indi- 
viduals are infinite; but being collected into a variety of 
species, they rise up into kinds; and these again ascend, 
and are contracted into generals, till at length nature may 
seem collected to a point' ; that he is called the messenger 
of the gods, next after Mercury, 'as, next after the word 
of God [= Mercury], the image of the world [Pan] is the 
herald of the divine power and wisdom'; that Orpheus 

1 Preface to The Wisdom of the Ancients. Cf. De Aug., bk. ii. ch. xiii. 

2 Bk. ii. ch. xiii. 



THE HEROIC POEM IN A SCIENTIFIC AGE 209 

denotes learning, Eurydice 'things', or the subject of 
learning; that Cupid is an allegory of the corpuscular 
philosophy, and so forth. 

A curious bye-product of the Baconian speculations is 
to be found in the Mythomystes of Henry Reynolds 
(c. 1633), 1 who applies the argument to the depreciation 
of modern poets. The moderns are ignorant triflers, 
whereas the ancient poets were all-wise. Reynolds is 
anxious to prove that the fables are all profound allegories 
not only of ethical truth, as often asserted, but of natural 
philosophy. In this scientific age it is our main concern 
to study God in his works, and here in these fables are to 
be found the secrets of his inner procedures. His talk is 
of Orpheus, Musaeus, Homer, Hesiod and Zoroaster, 
whom he regards as divinely illumined (comparable, 
indeed, to Moses in this respect), and cites Plato, Pico 
della Mirandola and Alessandro Farra as authorities for 
the doctrine of 'inspiration'. He quotes Conti, 2 'one of 
our late Mythologians', to the effect that philosophy, 
when it first appeared, was only 'the senses and meanings 
of fables taken out and separated from their huskes and 
involvements'. He praises the ancients for the care with 
which they wrapped up their meanings, thus ensuring 
that only the discerning should understand them. 

It is nowhere suggested, either by Bacon or Reynolds, 
that poetry should still be used, in the manner of antiquity, 
for conveying profound intuitions and glimpses of ' truth '. 
On the contrary, it is everywhere implied that though 
poetry may have been the 'mental rattle that awakened 
the attention of intellect in the infancy of civil society', 3 
its usefulness is now exhausted, and our present concern 
is with the serious work trying to behold face to face 

1 Spingarn, Critical Essays of the Seventeenth Century, vol. i. p. 141. 

2 d. 1582. 

3 T. L. Peacock, Four Ages of Poetry. 
P 



2IO THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

what was formerly seen in a glass darkly. Bacon con- 
cludes his section on Poetry with 

'But it is not good to stay too long in the theatre. Let us now 
pass on to the judicial place or palace of the mind, which we are 
to approach with more reverence and attention.' * 

And Reynolds tells us that nowadays the -philosophers are 
the true poets. This is certainly the feeling of Thomas 
Sprat, to whom we now return. 

'When the fabulous Age was past,' says he, ' Philosophy took 
a little more courage ; and ventured more to relye upon its own 
strength, without the Assistance of Poetry.' 

Heroes and giant-killers, it is said, were followed of old 
by lawgivers, and Sprat will presume to give a 'philo- 
sophical sense' to this story too ('as many others have 
done before me'): 

'First then, the Phantasms, and Fairies, and venerable Images 
of Antiquity, did long haunt the World: against these we have 
had our Champions ; and without all question they had the 
better of the Cause: and now we have good ground to trust, 
that these Illusions being well over, the last finishing of this 
great Work is nigh at hand, and is reserv'd for this undertaking 
[the Royal Society].' 2 

The most important passages in Sprat's book, for our 
purposes, occur where, after narrating the early history of 
the Royal Society, he proceeds to give 'a model of their 
whole design'. It is noticeable that in the forefront of 
this account he places the intention of the Society to purge 
the present age of the errors of antiquity — 

'And to accomplish this, they have endeavour'd, to separate 
the knowledge of Nature from the colours of Rhetoric k y the devices 
of Fancy, or the delightful deceit of Fables. 1 3 

— in a word, they have determined to declare war upon 

1 Ad<v. of Learning, bk. ii. ch. iv. end. 

2 Sprat, op. cit., pp. 29-30. 3 ibid., p. 62 (my italics). 



THE HEROIC POEM IN A SCIENTIFIC AGE 211 

poetry. As for the scope of their enquiries — God, Men 
and Nature comprising the whole possible field, they pro- 
pose to 'forbear' God and the Soul, as being likely to lead 
to more talking than working. With God they 'meddle 
no otherwise than onely as the Power, Wisdom and Good- 
ness of the Creator, is display 'd in the admirable order 
and workmanship of the Creatures'. When they have 
made more progress in the exploration of material phe- 
nomena they may, perhaps, tackle the Soul; for though 
man is no mere 'natural Engine' of whose motions we may 
give a mechanical account, yet a further study of 'spirits', 
'bloud', etc., may bring us nearer to accurate guesses 
about even the more exalted acts of the soul, 'and that, 
too, without destroying its spiritual and Immortal Being'. 

' These two subjects, God and the Soul, being onely for born : 
In all the rest, they wander at their pleasure.' x 

To this, then, the rendering to Faith that which is Faith's 
has by now brought us, that this eminent Restoration 
divine can really feel that in omitting God and the Soul 
from their programme the Royal Society are omitting 
nothing of serious importance. It is axiomatic that God 
and the Soul exist, so why worry any further about them ? 
Besides, the study of the Creation is the best study of the 
Creator, and therefore philosophy is not only the true 
poetry of the age (as Reynolds has said), but the true 
religion as well. 

'There is one thing more', Sprat continues, in what has 
become the best known passage of his book, 

'about which the Society has been most sollicitous ; and that is, 
the manner of their Discourse : which, unless they had been 
very watchful to keep in due temper, the whole spirit and vigour 
of their Design, had been soon eaten out by the luxury and re- 
dundancy of speech.' 2 

1 ibid., p. 83 (my italics). 2 ibid., p. 111 ff. 



212 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

The famous attack on 'poetic' language, which follows, 
is a blend of Platonic and Baconian ardour for 'truth' 
with dislike for scholastic and metaphysical wit. It is a 
manifesto, comparable in a sense to Wordsworth's Preface 
to Lyrical Ballads^ proclaiming the Augustan return to 
'nature'; but whereas Wordsworth is concerned to dis- 
tinguish true from false poetry, the 'imaginative' from the 
'imaginary', Sprat rejects, on behalf of his age, all forms of 
poetic utterance as undesirable 'ornaments of speech'. 
These embellishments 'were at first, no doubt, an admir- 
able Instrument in the hands of Wise Men', who used 
them to clothe moral and philosophical instruction; but 
now — 

'they are generally chang'd to worse uses : They make the fancy 
disgust the best things, if they come sound, and unadorn'd: they 
are in open defiance against Reason : professing not to hold much 
correspondence with that ; but with its Slaves^ the Passions ; they 
give the mind a motion too changeable, and bewitching, to con- 
sist with right practice. Who can behold, without Indignation, 
how many mists and uncertainties, these specious Tropes and 
Figures have brought on our knowledge? ... in few words, I 
dare say, that of all the Studies of men, nothing may be sooner 
obtain'd than this vicious abundance of Phrase, this trick of 
Metaphors, this volubility of Tongue, which makes so great a 
noise in the world.' 

'They have therefore been most rigorous in putting into 
execution, the only Remedy that can be found for this extrava- 
gance: and that has been, a constant Resolution, to reject all 
the amplifications, digressions, and swellings of style: to return 
back to the primitive purity, and shortness, when men deliver'd so 
many things, almost in an equal number of words. They have 
exacted from all their members, a close, naked, natural way of 
speaking; positive expressions, clear senses; a native easiness; 
bringing all things as near the Mathematical plainness, as they 
can : and preferring the language of Artisans, Countrymen, and 
Merchants, before that, of Wits, or Scholars.'' 1 

Not only Tropes and Figures, but the 'yellow-skirted 

1 My italics. 



THE HEROIC POEM IN A SCIENTIFIC AGE 213 

fays ' will now be banished for ever by the light of com- 
mon day. Sprat complacently announces the passing of 
the beliefs ('superstitions') which his co-Fellow of the 
Royal Society, Glanvill, was labouring to defend. In thus 
dismissing into outer darkness the beliefs which had lived 
for centuries on the borderland of poetry and religion, 
Sprat exhibits something of the sense of safety and inner 
assurance which was characteristic of Addison, and often 
approaches him closely in the tone of his writing. The 
poets of old, he says, reverting to his former accusation, 

l to make all things look more venerable than they were, devised a 
thousand false Chimaeras ; on every Field, River, Grove and 
Cave, they bestow'd a Fantasm of their own making: With 
these they amaz'd the world. . . . And in the modern Ages these 
Fantastical Forms were reviv'd and possess'd Christendom, in 
the very height of the Scholemen's time: An infinit number of 
Fairies haunted every house; all Churches were fill'd with 
Apparitions; men began to be frighted from their Cradles. . . . 
All which abuses if those acute Philosophers did not promote, 
yet they were never able to overcome; nay, even not so much as 
King Oberon and his invisible Army. 

'But from the time in which the Real Philosophy has appear'd 
there is scarce any whisper remaining of such horrors : Every 
man is unshaken at those Tales at which his Ancestors trembled: 
The cours of things goes quietly along, in its own true channel of 
Natural Causes and Effects. For this we are beholden to Ex- 
periments ; which though they have not yet completed the dis- 
covery of the true world, yet they have already vanquished those 
wild inhabitants of the false world, that us'd to astonish the minds 
of men.' x 

No clearer proclamation could be desired of the victory 
of the new world-picture, the fact-world, over the older 
worlds of traditional feeling. 'Truth' was the exclusive 
possession of the Real Philosophy; all besides could only, 
from the point of view of the time, be false and chimerical. 
For Sprat the entry into the 'true world' was a glorious 

1 op. cit* p. 340 (my italics). Cf. Addison, Spectator, No. 419. 



214 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

emancipation; he would have been staggered to know 
that one hundred and fifty years after him men not out 
of their senses (though poets) would be lamenting that 
glory and loveliness had passed away; that later on, the 
recovery of every fragment of information about primi- 
tive beliefs would be the life's work of a distinguished 
succession of scientists; and that an outstanding mind of 
the third century after his would be passionately striving 
to bring back the pre-scientific consciousness, and re- 
animate the world which science had 'killed'. Sprat him- 
self was of course far from admitting that his science 
was a danger to 'Religion' as he understood it. He de- 
votes a long and characteristic section to proving the 
contrary, making use of the arguments common to all 
the harmonisers of religion and science in his day. Reason 
and Religion aim at the same objects, and cannot possibly 
conflict. As for the Gospel miracles, they, like the Tropes 
of the early poets, were necessary in an ignorant age, but 
have been discontinued since men became capable of 
rational conviction. The Church of England at any rate 
(whatever may be said of others) will not fear the new 
light, for she has always stood for Reform, the Rights of 
the Civil Power, and Reason. The Anglican Church 
stands firm, midway between Superstition and Enthu- 
siasm, and will gain, not lose, by the spread of the scien- 
tific temper. 'The universal Disposition of this Age is 
bent upon a rational Religion,' 1 and this is exactly what 
the Church exists to provide. He admits, indeed, with 
a coolness surprising in a bishop, that ''the influence which 
Christianity once obtained on men's minds is now prodigiously 
decayed ', 2 that its condition, in fact, resembles that of the 
cults of antiquity just before their destruction — when 
their ceremonies were observed in public and ignored in 
private. But for this he blames, not science, but the vices 

1 op. cit., p. 374. % ibid., p. 376 (my italics). 



THE HEROIC POEM IN A SCIENTIFIC AGE 215 

of the time; and the cure for it is not more mystery, but 
more rationality. The practice of moral virtue, the observ- 
ance of the Laws of Nature, and the contemplation of 
God's works — these are the remedies. As for the super- 
natural doctrines of Christianity, there is nothing better, 
he says, than 'to believe them in gross'. 'The spiritual 
and supernatural part of Christianity no philosophy can 
reach'; the 'experimenter' can therefore believe them as 
easily as a schoolman. At first sight Sprat's language on 
this subject may seem to resemble that of the modern 
segregators of religion from science; yet his purpose is 
really opposite to theirs. While Barth or Otto insist on 
the transcendence of the supernatural in order to vindi- 
cate its autonomy, Sprat is honouring it with a cold salute 
after banishing it to a safe distance. 

Finally, in enumerating the benefits to be expected 
from science, Sprat gives us a short and not very gracious 
section on ' this -pleasant but unprofitable sort of men ',* the 
Wits and writers, who also, it appears, may profit from the 
Real Philosophy. Friend and biographer of Cowley 
though he be, Sprat feels he must apologise for including 
this topic 'amidst so many matters of greater weight'. 
What he says of the sources of poetic imagery is, however, 
of considerable interest and significance for our present 
purpose. Wit, he tells us, is founded upon images de- 
rived from the various spheres of familiar or traditional 
knowledge. These images have at all times been drawn, 
he continues, from 

'the Fables and Religions of the Ancients, the Civil Histories of 
all Countries, the Customs of Nations, the Bible, the Sciences, 
the Manners of Men, the several Arts of their hands, and the 
works of Nature. In all these, where there may be a resem- 
blance of one thing to another, as there may be in all, there is a 
sufficient Foundation for Wit.' 

1 ibid., p. 419 (my italics). For this discussion see ibid., pp. 413 ff. 



2l6 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

Now some of these sources of imagery are by this time 
exhausted^ and Sprat, curiously anticipating at once John- 
son and Wordsworth, writes as follows: 

' The Wit of the Fables and Religions of the Antient World is 
well-nigh consumed : They have already served the poets long 
enough ; and it is now high time to dismiss them ; especially seeing 
they have this peculiar imperfection, that they were only Fictions at 
first : whereas Truth is never so well expressed or amplify' d, as 
by those Ornaments which are True and Real in themselves? 

Classical mythology is thus exploded and obsolete, and 
can no longer infuse life into modern poetry. The old 
nature-images of the poets are also too hackneyed to be 
repeated any more. The ancients had long ago 'quite 
devour'd' the sweetness of flowers, fruits and herbs; and 
they had 'tir'd out the Sun, and Moon, and Stars with 
their Similitudes, more than they fancy them to be 
wearied by their daily journeys round the Hevens'. The 
moral of all this is, of course, that the new knowledge of 
nature will supply poets with what they most need, a 
source of new and true images. 

2. HOBBES AND DrYDEN ON FANCY AND JUDGMENT. 

Further testimony to the same effect is to be found 
in the psychological theories of the time, in which 'judg- 
ment' is customarily valued above 'fancy'. In his Answer 
to Davenant (1650) Hobbes gives this account of the 
'creative' process: 

'Time and Education begets Experience ; Experience begets 
memory; Memory begets Judgment and Fancy: Judgment 
begets the strength and structure, and Fancy begets the orna- 
ments of a Poem. The Ancients therefore fabled not absurdly 
in making memory the Mother of the Muses. For memory is 
the World (though not really, yet so as in a looking glass) in 
which the Judgment, the severer Sister, busieth her self in a 
grave and rigid examination of all the parts of Nature, and in 
registering by Letters their order, causes, uses, differences, and 
resemblances ; Whereby the Fancy, when any work of Art is 



THE HEROIC POEM IN A SCIENTIFIC AGE 217 

to be performed, findes her materials at hand and prepared for use, 
and needs no more than a swift motion over them, that what she 
wants, and is there to be had, may not lie too long unespied.' * 

Fancy is thus a process whereby the contents of the mind, 
which consist of sense-impressions preserved in the store- 
house of the Memory, are rapidly reviewed, and suitable 
images picked out for ornamental use. It is associated by 
Hobbes with the act of finding 'unexpected similitude' in 
'things otherwise much unlike', from whence proceed 
'those grateful similies, metaphors, and other tropes, by 
which both poets and orators have it in their power to 
make things please or displease, and show well or ill to 
others, as they like themselves'. On the other hand, 
Judgment is the act of discerning dissimilitude in things 
that otherwise appear the same. Fancy and Judgment 
together make up what Hobbes and his contemporaries 
knew as Wit. 2 Elsewhere 3 , speaking of Wit as one of 
the intellectual virtues, he tells us outright that 'Fancy, 
without help of judgment, is not commended as a virtue', 
whereas judgment is commended for its own sake. In a 
good poem — that is to say, in an epic or dramatic poem, 
for 'sonnets', etc., are dismissed as 'other pieces' — both 
are required, and Hobbes even concedes that 'the fancy 
must be more eminent'; but this is for a reason which 
itself 'places' poetry — it is because such poems 'please 
for the extravagancy, but ought not to displease by indis- 
cretion'. We may use language, he tells us in a chapter 
Of Speech , 4 'to please and delight ourselves and others, 
by playing with our words, for pleasure or ornament, 
innocently'. But this is not the serious employment of 
words, which are properly signs for real things and their 
connections. He classes metaphor as one of the abuses 

1 Spingarn, Crit. Essays of the Seventeenth Century, vol. ii. p. 59. 

2 See Hobbes's Human Nature, Works (Molesworth ed.), vol. iv. ch. x. 

3 Leviathan, ch. viii. 

4 ibid., ch. iv. 



2l8 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

of language and a source of deceit, misconception, and 
absurdity. 

Dryden, as a professional man of letters and a critic, 
has wider views on poetic speech, and knows how to put 
up a sound apology for what he terms 'poetic licence'. 
But his psychology of poetry is very much like Hobbes's. 
In one of his earliest prose writings 1 he defends the use 
of rhyme in plays on the ground that it 'bounds and 
circumscribes the fancy'. 

'For imagination in a poet [synonymous with "fancy"] is a 
faculty so wild and lawless, that like a high-ranging spaniel, it 
must have clogs tied to it, lest it outrun the judgment.' 

The obligation to rhyme forces the poet to curb his 
magnanimity, and allows time for his judgment to assert 
its proper sway. Similarly, in the Essay of Dramatic Poesy 
(1668) Dryden calls judgment 'the master-workman in a 
play', and describes 'verse' as 'a rule and line by which 
he keeps his building compact and even, which otherwise 
lawless imagination would raise either irregularly or 
loosely'. 2 In a later essay 3 he speaks — in language more 
congenial to the twentieth than to the nineteenth century 
— of the 'coolness and discretion which is necessary to a 
poet'. We are here as far removed as possible from the 
furor poeticus, the 'afflatus', which in all 'inspirational' 
theories of poetry from Plato onwards have been said to 
accompany poetic utterance. We are equally distant from 
the plastic Imagination of Wordsworth and Coleridge, 
which moulds the mere natura naturata into something 
'truer' than itself. It was a stock reproach against poets 
during the Renaissance and the neo-classic period that 
they were not merely makers of sugared trifles but actually 

1 Epistle Dedicatory of The Rival Ladies, 1664. (Essays of J. Dryden, ed. 
W. P. Ker, vol. i. p. 8.) 

2 Essays of Dryden, vol. i. p. 107. 

3 Apology for Heroic Poetry and Poetic Licence, 1677, ibid., p. 186. 



THE HEROIC POEM — MILTON 219 

forgers of lies. The poet speaks the thing that is not. 
Two principal kinds of answers were devised by the 
apologists: either that the poet speaks 'higher' truths in 
parable, or that he 'nothing affirmes, and therefore never 
lyeth ' 1 — that is, that his work is really play and must 
not be taken seriously. On the whole, it was the latter 
which in the end came to hold the field. It is implicit, 
for example, in Dryden; and although poetry saved its 
dignity in the next century by becoming satirical and 
reflective, it remained essentially an embellishment upon 
a prose fabric : complimented and honoured indeed, like 
women in the ' Utopia of gallantry', but like them, of no 
serious account. 

2 

MILTON 

With all these forces, scientific and philosophic, work- 
ing together for ' Truth ', and tending more and more to 
show up the traditional imagery of poetry and religion as 
obsolete, phantasmal or fictitious, how was it that the 
seventeenth century nevertheless produced what Dryden 
himself called 'one of the greatest, most noble, and 
most sublime poems which either this age or nation 
has produced ' 2 — Paradise Lost ? This is obviously 
a question which must receive serious attention in a 
study like the present, which is largely concerned with 
the relation between what was held for 'truth' and 
what for 'poetry' in this century. In attempting to 
account for the appearance of this great religious 
poem in the middle of the seventeenth century I shall 
have to discuss, as briefly as may be, its form and 
subject-matter, and some aspects of Milton's own mind 
and character. 

1 Cf. Sidney's Apologie. 

2 Apology for Heroic Poetry, op. cit., vol. i. p. 179. 



220 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

I. The Heroic Poem. 

In the first place, then, it must be emphasised that in 
the seventeenth century there was one poetic genre which 
enjoyed such peculiar and special prestige that it was 
proof against the cold climate of 'an age too late* — the 
Heroic Poem. Only the Bible could claim a greater share 
of reverence than Homer and Vergil. This was a legacy 
of the Renaissance, when, as is well known, the desire 
to emulate the noblest achievements of the ancients had 
become fused with the patriotic nationalism of the time, 
and poets in each country had aspired to 'illustrate' their 
vernaculars by composing in them works worthy to be set 
beside the Iliad and the Aeneid. The continued vitality 
of this tradition is well illustrated in Dryden's describing 
the Heroic Poem, at the very end of the century and of 
his own life (1697), as 'undoubtedly the greatest work 
which the soul of man is capable to perform'. 1 It is out- 
side my purpose to account for this veneration for epic 
poetry, but a few of its credentials may well be mentioned. 
The ancients had produced their crowning masterpieces 
in this kind; Aristotle had canonised it; and Dante, 
Ariosto, and Tasso had in their several ways raised Italian 
nearly to a level with the classical languages. Not until 
a work of equal scope, ordonnance and elevation had been 
produced in French, for instance, or in English, could 
those modern dialects claim to have emerged from medi- 
aeval barbarism. Moreover, the subject-matter of epic 
was normally some great act in the drama of national his- 
tory, and through it, therefore, could be expressed the 
new-found pride of nationhood, and the passion for great 
doing, which distinguished the Renaissance. Above all, 
the comparative invulnerability of heroic poetry, even in 
an age of scientific enlightenment, was due to this, that 

1 Dedication of the Aeneis, op. cit., vol. ii. p. 154, 



THE HEROIC POEM — MILTON 221 

though it might make use of fiction, though its history 
might be 'fained', its object was something as important 
as Truth itself, namely moral edification. On this point 
the critics from the Renaissance onwards were unanimous, 
and Dryden's remark, which recalls Spenser's, may be 
taken as typical : 

'The design of it is to form the mind to heroic virtue by 
example ; 'tis conveyed in verse, that it may delight, while it 
instructs.' 1 

In order to acquit himself worthily in heroic poetry, then, 
a poet must possess the loftiest genius as an artist and the 
highest qualities as a man. The very difficulty of the 
task invested the whole topic with a glamour which can 
now be more easily understood than felt ; and this to some 
extent explains the extraordinary fact, noted by W. P. 
Ker, 2 that 

'The "Heroic Poem" is not commonly mentioned in his- 
tories of Europe as a matter of serious interest: yet from the days 
of Petrarch and Boccaccio to those of Dr Johnson, and more 
especially from the sixteenth century onward, it was a subject 
that engaged some of the strongest intellects in the world (among 
them Hobbes, Gibbon and Hume); it was studied and discussed 
as fully and with as much thought as any of the problems by 
which the face of the world was changed in those centuries. 
There might be difference of opinion about the essence of the 
Heroic Poem or the Tragedy, but there was no doubt about 
their value. Truth about them was ascertainable, and truth 
about them was necessary to the intellect of man, for they were 
the noblest things belonging to him.' 

English poetry had had its Spenser, who had hoped to 
overgo Ariosto. But he was not felt to have succeeded; 
for, as Dryden remarked, in reviewing the achievement 
in this field, 3 there was no uniformity in his design; he 
had a new hero for each adventure, and as each one repre- 

1 ibid. 2 Essays of Dryden, vol. i., Introduction, p. xvi. 

8 Discourse Concerning the Original and Progress of Satire, op. cit., vol. ii. p. 28. 



222 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

sented a particular moral virtue, they are 'all equal, with- 
out subordination or preference'. And apart from these 
and other faults (the 'ill choice of his stanza', for instance), 
the work was incomplete. The absolute epic in English 
was still unwritten. Part at least of Milton's purpose was 
to write it, and so to realise at last, for England, this 
cherished ambition of the Renaissance. In a famous 
passage of the Reason of Church Government^ Milton relates 
how the great idea came to him, 

'that by labour and intense study . . . joined with the strong 
propensity of nature, I might perhaps leave something so written 
to a/tertimes, as they should not willingly let it die.' 

And it became clear to him, also, that like a true poet of 
the Renaissance, his aim must be the adorning of his 
native tongue, and the honour and instruction of his 
country: 

*That what the greatest and choicest wits of Athens, Rome, 
or modern Italy, and those Hebrews of old did for their country, 
I, in my proportion, with this over and above, of being a Chris- 
tian, might do for mine; not caring to be once named abroad, 
though perhaps I could attain to that, but content with these 
British islands as my world. . . .' * 

Dryden will not grant that even Milton had realised the 
idea of the heroic poem, for reasons which will be best 
discussed when we come to the question of subject- 
matter. But he would have agreed that Milton was pre- 
eminently fitted, both in genius and in character, to suc- 
ceed where others had failed. Loftily as they conceived 
of the heroic poem, no poet or critic of the Renaissance 
could approach Milton in grandeur of purpose and in- 
tensity of self-devotion. It is not for me here to do more 
than remind readers how, 'long choosing and beginning 
late', Milton dedicated himself to the intellectual and 

1 Milton's Prose Works (Bohn), vol. ii. p. 478. 



THE HEROIC POEM— MILTON 223 

moral discipline which he considered necessary for his 
purpose; of his realisation that 

'he who would not be frustrate of his hope to write well hereafter 
in laudable things, ought himself to be a true poem; that is, a 
composition and pattern of the best and honourablest things;' * 

and of his magnificent request, twenty years before the 
completion of Paradise Lost) for yet more time, since his 
was 

'a work not to be raised from the heat of youth, or the vapours 
of wine; like that which flows at waste from the pen of some 
vulgar amourist, or the trencher fury of a rhyming parasite; nor 
to be obtained by the invocation of dame memory and her siren 
daughters, but by devout prayer to that eternal Spirit, who can 
enrich with all utterance and knowledge, and sends out his 
seraphim, with the hallowed fire of his altar, to touch and purify 
the lips of whom he pleases.' 2 

Nor was Milton actuated, it need hardly be said, merely 
by the literary and patriotic ambition to rival the ancients 
in English ; with him the moral purpose, always a part of 
the Renaissance theory of epic, was of supreme import- 
ance. His work was to be 'doctrinal and exemplary to a 
nation ', for it was the true office of poetic genius, he held, 

'to imbreed and cherish in a great people the seeds of virtue and 
public civility, to allay the perturbations of the mind, and set the 
affections in right tune; to celebrate in glorious and lofty hymns 
the throne and equipage of God's almightiness, and what he 
works, and what he suffers to be wrought with high providence 
in his church; to sing victorious agonies of martyrs and saints, 
the deeds and triumphs of just and pious nations, doing valiantly 
through faith against the enemies of Christ. . . . Teaching over 
the whole book of sanctity and virtue, through all the instances 
of example. . . .' 3 

The appearance of Paradise Lost in the midst of the 
seventeenth century, then, may be attributed in the first 

1 Apology for Smectymnuus (Bohn), vol. iii. p. 118. 

2 Reason of Church Government (Bohn), vol. ii. p. 481. 8 ibid., p. 479. 



224 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

place to the fact that in Milton the Renaissance idea of 
the heroic poem, alive as ever though hitherto 'laid up in 
some heaven to which the true scholar might rise', 1 at 
last found its destined English exponent. 

2. Milton s Choice of Subject. 

It is not part of my purpose to discuss the stages in 
Milton's own development which finally led to his choos- 
ing the Fall of Man as the theme of his heroic poem. It 
is well known that this was not his original intention; 
that he had meant to write an Arthuriad, and that Paradise 
Lost had been, at the time of the Trinity Manuscript, 2 
his favourite idea for a Tragedy. Dr Tillyard, in his 
admirable recent work on Milton, 3 has also shown, by a 
careful examination of the prose works, that at the begin- 
ning of the Parliamentary regime Milton was in a state 
of high-wrought excitement, expecting an imminent 
divine event in England, and that he then hoped, in his 
Arthuriad or other epic of kindred theme, to sing the 
glorious coming of the Kingdom of God and the victories 
of his saints. In one of his most incandescent passages of 
impassioned prose, composed in that dawn when it was a 
bliss to be alive, England then standing on the top of 
golden hours, 4 Milton wrote: 

'Then, amidst the hymns and hallelujahs of saints, some one may 
perhaps be heard offering at high strains in new and lofty measure 
to sing and celebrate thy divine mercies and marvellous judg- 
ments in this land throughout all ages ; whereby this great and 
warlike nation, instructed and inured to the fervent and con- 
tinual practice of truth and righteousness, and casting far from 
her the rags of her whole vices, may press on hard to that high 
and happy emulation to be found the soberest, wisest, and most 
Christian people at that day, when thou, the eternal and shortly 

1 Ker, op. cit., Introduction, p. xv. 2 c. 1640-1. 

3 E. M. W. Tillyard, Milton (Chatto & Windus, 1930). 

4 The parallel with Wordsworth's state of mind in 1790 is irresistible. 



THE HEROIC POEM— MILTON 225 

expected King, shalt open the clouds to judge the several King- 
doms of the world, and distributing national honours and rewards 
to religious and just commonwealths, shalt put an end to all 
earthly tyrannies, proclaiming thy universal and mild monarchy 
through heaven and earth; where they undoubtedly, that by 
their labours, counsels, and prayers, have been earnest for the 
common good of religion and their country, shall receive above 
the inferior orders of the blessed, the regal addition of princi- 
palities, legions, and thrones into their glorious titles, and in 
supereminence of beatific vision, progressing the dateless and 
irrevoluble circle of eternity, shall clasp inseparable hands with 
joy and bliss, in overmeasure for ever.' * 

Dr Tillyard has shown convincingly that Milton 
changed these notes to tragic only after the disappoint- 
ment of his political hopes, that Paradise Lost itself is thus 
in a sense the work of disillusion, and that the 'embers' 
of his projected heroic poem, the poem of hope and 
achievement, must be sought in the prose works, and 
(eminently, of course) in the verse of the early books of 
Paradise Lost and in the character of Satan. 

To this it may be added that in finally choosing his 
theme, Milton, like Wordsworth when he wrote The 
Prelude, was probably guided by the irresistible bent of 
his own nature towards the kind of subject with which 
his genius was best fitted to deal. As Dr Johnson truly 
remarked, Milton's characteristic port is 'gigantick lofti- 
ness', and it is permissible to doubt whether he could have 
employed his great powers to such effect upon any subject 
of a more 'human' or 'dramatic' kind. It is true, as Dr 
Tillyard has pointed out, 2 that had Milton been able to 
achieve his poem of hope we might still have had his poem 
cf disillusion in a second long work, instead of what we 
actually have — one single long poem of strangely blended 
texture. Nevertheless one may surmise that even then the 

1 Of Reformation in England, 1641 (Bohn), vol. ii. pp. 418-19 (my italics). 

2 op. cit., p. 112. 
Q 



226 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

greater of those two possible poems would have been that 
which approached the more closely in scope and setting 
to Paradise Lost. We must believe, I think, that Milton 
is not merely rationalising his own sense of frustrated 
hopes when he calls his theme 

*argument 
Not less, but more heroic than the wrath 
Of stern Achilles on his foe pursu'd 
Thrice fugitive about Troy wall . . . ' 

and describes himself as: 

'Not sedulous by nature to indite 
Wars, hitherto the only argument 
Heroic deem'd, chief mast'ry to dissect 
With long and tedious havoc fabl'd knights 
In battles feign'd . . .' 
adding : 

'Mc of these 
Nor skill'd nor studious, higher argument 
Remains, sufficient of itself to raise 
That name, unless an age too late, or cold 
Climate, or years damp my intended wing.' 1 

What I am especially concerned here to suggest, how- 
ever, is that, at any rate after the failure of the Saints, it 
was not only the bent of his own nature but the intel- 
lectual climate of his age which impelled Milton towards 
a biblical theme for his heroic poem. It is true that 
Milton's outlook seems never to have been influenced by 
the post-Restoration and Royal Society atmosphere; he 
had nothing about him of the 'experimental philosopher'. 
Indeed, his work is much like an isolated volcano thrust- 
ing up through the philosophic plains, and drawing 
its fire from deeper and older levels of spiritual energy. 
But Milton was 'protestant' to the core, and this meant 
that in the moral sphere he was an 'experimenter', and 

1 Paradise Lost, preamble to bk. ix. 



THE HEROIC POEM — MILTON 227 

had the same disdain for all that was not 'truth' as the 
natural philosopher had in his. The protestant abhor- 
rence of the tinsel ('carnality') of Laudian religion, well 
seen in Milton's anti-episcopal tracts, was the moral 
counterpart of the philosopher's scorn for scholastic verbi- 
age. Intolerance of all except what seemed to him most 
real was, then, a characteristic of Milton which linked him 
with his age, and vitally affected his choice of poetic sub- 
ject. In the conditions of the century, and to a man of 
Milton's temper, what kind of theme would appear 
worthy to be sung in new and lofty measure? Only one 
which he could feel to be in the highest sense 'true' as 
well as 'heroic'. Milton's dismissal of 'fabled Knights' 
and 'battles feigned' and all the 'tinsel trappings' of 
romance constitutes a rejection of 'fiction' by the pro- 
testant consciousness, which is strictly comparable with 
the rejection of scholasticism by the scientific conscious- 
ness, and can be ascribed to the same underlying cause. 
The traditional sources of poetry were running dry; 
mythologies were exploded and obsolete; no poet with 
Milton's passion for reality could pour all the energies of 
his nature into such moulds any longer. But there still 
remained one source, and one only, from which the 
seventeenth century protestant poet could draw images 
and fables which were not only 'poetic' but also 'true': 
the Bible. Thanks to the work of several recent scholars, 
notably M. Saurat and Dr Tillyard, we now appreciate 
the range and daring of Milton's speculation, and realise 
that it is unsafe to ascribe to him the purely naive beliefs 
he was formerly thought to hold. Milton could twist 
Scripture to his purpose, or, as we have seen, 1 override it 
on occasion. 2 Yet when all is said, Milton's attitude to 

1 See above, p. 71. 

2 Cf. ' No ordinance, human or from heaven, can bind against the good of 
man.' Quoted from Tetrachordon by Tillyard, op. cit., p. 164. 



228 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

the Bible was still that of protestantism. The Bible re- 
mained a numinous book for Locke, and Toland, and 
Swift, and Addison, and innumerable polite savants in the 
eighteenth century; how much more, then, must its 
authority have been felt as a fact by a man of Milton's 
stamp? That he deferred instinctively to it, even while 
'interpreting' it, is shown by his composing that laborious 
treatise, the De Doctrina Christiana, 1 in which he is seen 
exercising the right, and discharging the duty, of every 
intelligent protestant to search the scriptures for himself 
and to construct his faith from its pages alone, without 
regard to the vain notions of other men, or the glosses of 
priestly tradition. To be left alone with Scripture might, 
indeed, mean to be left alone with one's own soul, for 
'Scripture' was wide enough to bear almost any construc- 
tion. This may all along have been the inner logic of the 
protestant appeal to Scripture. But all this leaves un- 
changed the central fact that Milton, together with nearly 
every one else in his century, felt all proper contact with 
biblical material to be, in quite a special sense, contact 
with Truth. When contemporary history, which alone 
could have given 'reality' to his Arthuriad, ceased to fur- 
nish matter for heroic and sacred song, Milton, too old, 
too disillusioned and too noble to spend his stored 
resources on anything but highest truth, could only turn 
to the Bible for his 'fable'. Science might dismiss old 
picture-thinking as phantasmal; Platonists might strive 
to wipe off the gross dews of the imagination from the 
clear glass of the understanding; puritans might banish 
as carnal the poetry of ritual and symbol : all these and 
other agencies might be at work, as they were, under- 
mining and destroying older forms of religious and 
poetic experience; nevertheless here, in Scripture, God 
himself had condescended to be a poet, and his divine 

1 Cf. above, pp. 69 ff. 



THE HEROIC POEM— COWLEY 229 

revelation could therefore still be sung by a Milton with 
undamaged assurance. The existence of the Hebrew 
scriptures, then, in the particular setting of seventeenth 
century protestantism, must be accounted, together with 
the idea of the heroic poem, as the cause which made 
possible a great serious poem at just the period when 
poetry was coming to be thought of as elegant and agree- 
able rather than 'true*. Poetry, like Popery, might be an 
affront to the common sense of a Locke or a Tillotson ; 
but as Prophecy it was still admissible. Calliope could 
not defend the Thracian bard from the wild rout in 
Rhodope; and no mere Muse could protect a modern 
poet from the barbarous dissonance of Restoration Eng- 
land. But Milton invokes Urania, a higher than Calliope : 

'So fail not thou, who thee implores: 
For thou art Heav'nly, she an empty dream.' x 

The seventeenth century feeling about Scriptural sub- 
jects for poetry is also expressed by Cowley, who, as a man 
of his own age rather than of all time, may be taken to 
reflect contemporary sentiments more closely than Milton. 
Speaking of his own Scriptural epic, the Davideis, he 
indulges in an outburst, rather of wit than of passion, on 
the way in which poets have laid waste their powers on 
frivolous topics while all the time the Bible contained 
subjects not only far more poetical, but also, of course, 
true. 

'When I consider this, and how many other [i.e. besides the 
story of David] bright and magnificent subjects of the like nature, 
the Holy Scripture affords and proffers, as it were, to Poesie, in 
the wise managing and illustrating whereof, the Glory of God 
Almighty might be joyned with the singular utility and noblest 
delight of Mankind; It is not without grief and indignation that 
I behold that Divine Science employing all her inexhaustible 
riches of Wit and Eloquence either in the wicked and beggerly 

1 Paradise Lost, preamble to bk. vii. 



23O THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

Flattery of great persons, or the unmanly Idolizing of Foolish 
Women, or the wretched affectation of scurril Laughter, or at 
best on the confused, antiquated Dreams of senseless Fables and 
Metamorphoses.'' x 

Amongst all holy things stolen by the Devil, there is none 
he has so long usurped as poetry, and it is time we restored 
it to God, its true Father: 

*There wants, methinks, but the Conversion of That and the 
Jews, for the accomplishing of the Kingdom of Christ.' 

Cowley expresses, too, the feeling we have already met 
with in Sprat, 2 that the Fables of antiquity are now 
exhausted and obsolete, and, having served the poets long 
enough, should now be abandoned — more particularly as 
they were 'only fictions at first'. Even if 'these boasted 
Feasts of Love and Fables' were wholesome (which they 
are not), a continuance of them would be nauseating, for 
it is 

'almost impossible to serve up any new Dish of that kinde. They 
are all but the Cold-meats of the Antients, new-heated, and new 
set forth.' 

The 'old Poets' themselves were indeed able to reap a 
rich harvest in this field, for the ground was then un- 
tilled; and besides, 'those mad stories of the Gods and 
Heroes', ridiculous as they may now seem, were then 'the 
whole Body (or rather Chaos) of the Theologie of those 
times'. But to an enlightened modern Christian poet, 
who should be impatient with their follies, such subjects 

'ought to appear no better arguments for verse than those of 
their worthy Successors, the Knights Errant.' 

The tone of Cowley's exhortation suggests that his zeal 
is less for the justification of God's ways to man than for 
vindicating 'modern' versus 'ancient', the Bible count- 
ing, paradoxically, as 'modern' because it 'belonged' to 

1 Poems of A. Cowley, Cambridge English Classics edition, p. 12 ff. 

2 Cf. p. 216 above. 



THE HEROIC POEM — COWLEY 23 I 

Christendom and not to pagan antiquity. The rest cf his 
argument seems to amount virtually to this : Ancient 
fables and wonders are nonsensical, but as poetry is bound 
to treat of marvels, why should it not sing of such as, 
being in the Bible, must needs be true, and which, more- 
over, have not become poetically hackneyed? Wonder 
for wonder, the Bible is more than a match for Greek 
mythology and legend. Is not Noah as suitable a subject 
for poetic ornament as Deucalion, or Samson as Hercules? 

'Why is not Jeptha's Daughter as good a woman as Iphigenia, 
and the friendship of David and Jonathan more worthy cele- 
bration then that of Theseus and Perithous? Does not the pas- 
sage of Moses and the Israelites into the Holy Land yield incom- 
parably more Poetical variety then the voyages of Ulysses or 
AeneasV etc. 

Such statements, whether critically justifiable or not, 
would sound pious and incontrovertible to seventeenth 
century ears. They are of interest to us as evidence of a 
realisation, at this period, that the Bible was a poetic 
source of unique value, inasmuch as its contents could 
not, even by modern philosophy, be dismissed as fabulous. 
Both Cowley and Milton speak as if to be a ' Christian 
poet' gave one an obvious and overwhelming advantage 
over all others. Yet whatever superiority of insight the 
Christian poet might owe to his Faith, he was also in- 
volved by it, as an artist, in peculiar difficulties. Cole- 
ridge has indicated one of the chief of these in a passage 
of the Biographia Literaria. 1 After censuring the use, by 
eighteenth century poets, of personifications taken from 
an exploded mythology, Coleridge continues: 

'Yet when the torch of ancient learning was re-kindled, so 
cheering were its beams, that our eldest poets, cut off by Chris- 
tianity from all accredited machinery, and deprived of all acknow- 
ledged guardians and symbols of the great objects of nature, were 

1 Vol. ii. p. 58 (ed. Shawcross). (The italics are mine.) 



232 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

naturally induced to adopt, as a poetic language, those fabulous 
personages, those forms of the supernatural in nature, which had 
given them such dear delight in the poems of their great masters.' 

Christianity, as an exclusive, complete and final revelation 
of the divine meaning of the universe, did indeed reduce 
to the level of fiction all other efforts of the human spirit 
to express its dealings with the Ultimate; and however 
eagerly 'our eldest poets' may have appropriated the 
imagery of antiquity, they did so in full consciousness that 
what they were employing was 'machinery' only, beauti- 
ful and compelling perhaps, but at best having no truth- 
value except sometimes as allegory. But the Christian 
poet, even if 'cut off' in this sense from all pagan ma- 
chinery, had still at his disposal, it will be said, the ma- 
chinery of Christianity itself? This was, as we have seen, 
just what Cowley and Milton (and certain French poets 
of the time) were insisting; and in the Hebrew antiqui- 
ties they possessed a store of materials which had been 
supernaturally preserved from destructive criticism. But 
the use of the Christian machinery for the purposes of a 
seventeenth century heroic poem was no simple matter. 
(Dante's Divine Comedy, being a wholly different kind of 
work, offered no example.) One might, indeed, celebrate 
the deeds of a David, a Samson, or other Old Testament 
heroes, and feel with Cowley that to do so was an act as 
well of piety as of artistry. But what if the central divine 
drama from the Creation to the Day of Judgment were 
itself to furnish matter for the song ? Owing to its histor- 
ical development in union with Greek philosophy, Chris- 
tianity was in the peculiar position of possessing not only 
a Hellenic God who was the Absolute of theology, but 
also a Hebrew Jehovah whose personality and behaviour 
were not altogether unlike those of 'the gods'. The dis- 
crepancy between the two conceptions would be felt to 
be due to the progressive quality of the divine revelation, 



THE HEROIC POEM — BOILEAU 233 

whereby one kind of relationship between God and 
man would be fitting before Christ's appearance, and 
another afterwards. In the seventeenth century, however 
Hebraically many Puritans thought and spoke about 
God, there is no doubt that for the best minds (Milton 
of course among them) God was 'omnipotent, immutable, 
immortal, infinite', 1 and this meant difficulty for any one 
who should speak of divine subjects in poetry, which can 
only proceed by giving to everything it touches 'a local 
habitation and a name'. Boileau, who may be taken as 
representative of the critical intelligence of the end of the 
century, declares frankly for the continued use of pagan 
machinery in epic, and pronounces the Christian faith 
unsuitable for poetic treatment. Heroic poetry, he says, 

'Se soutient par la fable, et vit de fiction. 
La, pour nous enchanter, tout est mis en usage; 
Tout prend un corps, une ame, un esprit, un visage. 

Ce n'est plus la vapeur qui produit la tonnerre, 
C'est Jupiter arme pour effrayer la terre ; ' 2 etc. 

It is the business of the epic poet to leave no common 
incident unadorned and unelevated; he must set each 
action in a mythological framework, for 

'C'est la ce qui surprend, frappe, saisit, attache. 
Sans tous ces ornemens le vers tombe en langueur; 
La poesie est morte, ou rampe sans vigueur.' 

Consequently the scriptural school of poets are misguided 
zealots : 

' C'est done bien vainement que nos auteurs desus, 3 
Bannissant de leurs vers ces ornemens recus, 
Pensent faire agir Dieu, ses saints, et ses prophetes, 
Comme ces dieux eclos du cerveau des poetesj 

1 Paradise Lost, iii. 372. 2 UArt Po/tique, iii. 160. 

3 Ker says that Boileau is thinking here especially of Desmarets- de Saint - 
Sorlin, author of Clovis (see Essays of J. Dryden, vol. ii. p. 279). 



234 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

Mettent a chaque pas le lecteur en enfer; 
N'offrent rien qu'Astaroth, Belzebuth, Lucifer. 
De la foi d'un chretien les mysteres terribles 
D'ornemens egayes ne sont pas susceptibles; 
L'Evangile a l'esprit n'offre de tous cotes 
Que penitence a faire et tourmens merites; 
Et de vos fictions le melange coupable 
Meme a ses verit.es donne l'air de la fable.' 

So completely has poetry, even epic, its most serious genre, 
assumed the role of 'enchanting' us with its fictions, its 
'ornemens egayes', that it cannot touch Truth without 
infecting it with its own fictitious quality. It had there- 
fore better leave religion alone, lest it run the risk 
'Du Dieu de verite faire un Dieu de mensonges.' 

This view reappears in Johnson's censure of Milton's 
Lycidas for its mingling with 'trifling fictions', of 'the 
most sacred and awful truths, such as ought never to be 
polluted with such irreverend combinations'. We see in 
this forced separation of religion from poetry a character- 
istic outcome of the intellectual movement of the century. 
As 'enlightenment' increased poetry could be dismissed 
(or enjoyed) as fiction ; religion could not yet be similarly 
dismissed, so it was pigeon-holed as 'revelation' and 
'mystery'. At all costs the two dangerous elements must 
be kept from combining, for if religion became poetical, 
or poetry religious, the ensuing explosion might disturb 
the peace of the Augustans. Dryden, reviewing in his 
old age the achievements of the century in heroic poetry, 
admits with Boileau that 

'the machines of our Christian religion, in heroic poetry, are much 
more feeble to support that weight than those of heathenism,' 1 

and considers this as a reason for 

'the failings of many great wits amongst the Moderns, who have 
attempted to write an epic poem.' 

1 A Discourse Concerning the Original and Progress of Satire. (Ker, vol. ii. 
pp. 31 ff.) 



THE HEROIC POEM — DRYDEN 22$ 

Milton, as before mentioned, 1 was not considered by 
Dryden to have written the long-awaited epic : 

'His subject is not that of an Heroic Poem, properly so called. 
His design is the losing of our happiness ; his event is not pros- 
perous, like that of all other epic works ; his heavenly machines 
are many, and his human persons are but two.' 

Although his censure of Milton is thus mainly the criti- 
cism of a man of letters upon a fellow-craftsman, rather 
than that of a man concerned with the relations between 
poetry and beliefs, Dryden does proceed, in one of the 
most unexpected passages of his prose, to consider the 
possibilities for a genuine Christian epic, and to offer 
what can only be described as an extraordinary sugges- 
tion of his own. Christian poets, he says, have neglected 
their own resources. In the angelology of the Book of 
Daniel, judiciously combined with 'the principles of the 
Platonic philosophy, as it is now Christianised ', they may 
find the desired Christian substitute for the gods of pagan- 
ism. The necessary supernatural machinery would then 
be provided by angelic creatures acting as tutelary genii 
or guardian angels presiding over the destiny of nations. 
Unlike the pagan gods, these angels would have the 
immense advantage of being non-fictitious, for their 
existence is 'a doctrine almost universally received by 
Christians, as well Protestants as Catholics'; and thus 
both poet and reader would have the satisfaction of feeling 
in contact with something truer than mere fable. More- 
over, the contests between the guardian angels of rival 
tribes would be free from the objections attaching to all 
portrayals of Divine omnipotence in conflict with Satan. 
To defy the omnipotent to arms is a palpable absurdity, 
and there can be no epic interest in a battle wherein the 
'poor devils' are sure to get worsted in the end. Whereas 
we should no more foresee the outcome of a conflict 

1 Cf. p. 222 above. 



236 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

between two tutelary angels than of one between Juno 
and Venus. 

It is strange to contemplate the aged Dryden writing 
thus hopefully of the prospects of heroic poetry so late 
in the seventeenth century, for as we can now see, the 
Renaissance impulse to excel in this kind was by then 
nearly exhausted, and 'the town' which in the next 
generation became excited over the Essay on Man would 
have scorned Dryden's proposed machinery, unless it had 
been used, like Pope's sylphs in the Rape of the Lock, in a 
mocking vein. Paradise Lw/had in fact been, in spite of 
Dryden, the nearest realisation of the epic ideal that 
England would have. The reasons for the solidity and 
lasting-power of Milton's epic lay outside the critical 
purview of Dryden or Boileau. It was based upon the 
one 'fable', the one piece of machinery, which could still 
be 'accredited' as real by almost everybody. True, it was 
bristling with 'inconveniences', but these were only those 
of the faith itself. God the Father might argue like a 
school-divine; Satan might be allowed an inexplicable 
degree of freedom; the whole business of the Fall might 
seem an arraignment rather than a justification of the 
ways of God to men ; the geography and administration 
of heaven and hell might be grossly pictorial and incom- 
patible with any rational theology; but all these diffi- 
culties were not created by Milton: they were inherent 
in a religion which grafted an Aristotelian or Platonic 
theology upon a stock of Hebrew mythology. Milton, 
like many in his own generation, was in the peculiar 
position of being able to hold advanced speculative views 
and yet at the same time to 'believe' in the traditional 
imagery of Christianity. The exact quality of that ' belief 
is difficult to define, but we may perhaps help ourselves 
to conceive it by remembering the instinctive deference of 
that age for ancient authority. If a Bacon could guess at 



THE HEROIC POEM — MILTON 237 

an antique wisdom embalmed in the classical myths, how 
much rather could not a Milton infallibly know that 
divine truth was contained in the sacred narratives ? Like 
a good protestant, Milton held that every passage of 
Scripture has only one plain sense, and that in all things 
necessary for salvation the Bible is plain and perspicuous. 1 
Yet he agreed so far with Philo and the allegorists 2 as to 
believe that in the Old Testament, at any rate, the sense 
is 'sometimes a compound of the historical and typical'. 3 
I have already 4 quoted Milton's statement that, in the 
biblical accounts of God and his procedure, we are to 
understand that God is 

'exhibited not as he really is, but in such a manner as may be 
within the scope of our comprehension.' 

Thus, with regard to the Creation, Milton, like Philo or 
Sir Thomas Browne, considered that it must 'in reality' 
have been instantaneous, for 

'Immediate are the acts of God, more swift 
Than time or motion. . . .' 5 

He even, if M. Saurat be right in his conjectures, enter- 
tained the remoter supposition, derived from the Zohar, 
of a Creation by the 'retreat' of God from part of Total 
Being. Nevertheless, in condescension to our capacity, 
the process of creation is successively related in Scrip- 
ture — 'so told as earthly notion can conceive' — and 
Milton accordingly follows the Scriptural account in 
Paradise Lost. In practising the method he ascribes to 
Raphael — 

'What surmounts the reach 
Of human sense, I shall delineate so, 
By lik'ning spiritual to corporal forms 
As may express them best ' 6 

1 Cf. De Doctrina Christiana, ch. xxx., Bohn, iv. p. 440-2. 

2 Cf. above, p. 61. 3 De Doct. Chr., loc. cit. 4 Above, p. 70. 
5 Paradise Lost, vii. 176. 6 P. L., v. 571. (Cf. above, p. 71.) 



238 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

Milton undoubtedly felt that he was employing the 
technique of Scripture itself. We could not know what 
God 'really is', nor the true manner of his actions, and 
though we were free to conjecture speculatively it was 
wisest to accept the Bible narrative. God's own allegories 
could at least contain no falsehood, even if they concealed 
the whole truth; our own invented notions, on the con- 
trary, would be sure to err. In trusting to Scriptural (and 
Miltonic) imagery, moreover, there was this further re- 
assuring thought: 

'What if Earth 
Be but the shadow of Heaven, and things therein 
Each to other like, more than on earth is thought?' 

Milton's strongly protestant cast of mind inclined him 
to a literal understanding of Scripture wherever possible; 
there might be an admixture of the 'typical' in a Bible 
story, yet it remained for him historical as well. I do 
not think Milton read the first chapters of Genesis, as 
Browne had suggested they might be read, simply as an 
allegory illustrating the seduction of Reason by the 
Passions, 1 though of course the story could mean that 
also. Had the Fall of Man not been for him a real 
historical fact as well as an allegory or dogma, I do not 
believe he could have made it the central theme of his 
greatest work. Similarly, 'Christ' might be for Milton, 
as for John Smith, a 'type', a 'principle', representing 
Right Reason, or the executive power of God, yet one 
cannot doubt that for him that principle was historically 
incarnated, in a unique sense, in Jesus of Nazareth. Dr 
Tillyard has well noted 2 that in a famous passage of Are 0- 
pagitica Milton juxtaposes, without change of tone, the 
legend of Psyche with the story of Genesis as if these 
were for him on exactly the same plane of reality. One 

1 Cf. above, pp. 67-8. 2 op. cit., p. 223. 



THE HEROIC POEM — MILTON 239 

might add that in the Nativity Ode there is nothing to 
mark the baroque figure of the 'meek-ey'd peace' as more 
fictional than the shepherds, the Virgin blest, or the Babe. 
The 'reality' of the false gods of heathendom was, we 
know, saved for Milton by their identification with the 
defaulting angels. On the whole, however, I think we 
must conclude that whereas the pagan myths were to him 
but husks from which truth could be winnowed (as in the 
theory of Bacon and Reynolds), the biblical events, if 
allegorical at all, were the deliberate allegories of God 
himself; and when God allegorises he does not merely 
write or inspire parables, he also causes to happen the 
events which can be allegorically interpreted?- At the same 
time we may agree with Dr Tillyard that Milton's mind 
was not consciously preoccupied with the demarcation of 
truth from fiction. He did not belong to the scientific 
movement of the seventeenth century, which, as I have 
repeatedly indicated above, was preoccupied with pre- 
cisely this task. He lived in a moral rather than a physi- 
cal world, and was ready to imbibe wisdom wherever he 
could find it. 'Wisdom', for most Renaissance minds — 
and as we have seen, Milton's was of that, rather than of 
the 'modern' or 'philosophic' order — was to be sought 
above all in antiquity. Antiquity for the seventeenth cen- 
tury scholar meant two great traditions, the classical, in 
which he had been intellectually trained, and the Christian, 
in which he had been spiritually moulded. Great rever- 
ence was felt for both traditions — hence the apparent 
equipollence of Greek and Scriptural myths in parts of 
Milton's writings — but a special degree of belief was, I 
think, accorded to the Christian. To the end of the 
century, and beyond it, the events of the Christian revela- 
tion were saved as ' real ' by the belief that in them God 
had, for exceptional and non-recurrent reasons, made a 

1 Cf. Saurat, Milton, the Man and the Thinker, p. 212. 



240 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

deliberate infraction of the 'laws of nature'; but that 
elsewhere and ever since for all time those laws would 
be found to operate in their ordinary course. It was only 
later, when science had familiarised a sharper division 
between 'real' and 'unreal' phenomena, that the miracu- 
lous elements of Christian doctrine could be attacked 
directly as 'mere' fictions. 

3. Milton and the Fall of Man. 

The foregoing considerations have been advanced, first 
to show how a great epic poem could arise out of this 
scientific century; and secondly, to explain why, in spite 
of all attendant difficulties, a Scriptural theme for this 
poem was almost inevitable. It remains now to indicate 
a few of the contradictions which, owing to Milton's 
partial exposure to the seventeenth century climate, are 
to be found embedded in his poetry. 

There would be less discussion than there has been 
about the real meaning of Paradise Lost were it not for 
the fact that we know Milton to have had affinities, on 
one side of his nature, with the rationalising spirit of his 
age, so that it is not always quite certain exactly what he 
is understanding by a given doctrine. He departed from 
current protestant orthodoxy in certain important respects. 
Not only in his radical views on divorce, but in some of 
the capital points of the faith, he showed an intrepid inde- 
pendence of mind, taking his adventurous flight, like his 
own Satan, straight through the palpable obscure of 
current opinion. He abandoned the Calvinist doctrine 
of predestination ; he refused the Son equal status with 
the Father; he asserted that God created the universe, 
not out of 'nothing', but out of Himself; and that there- 
fore 'matter' was in itself a divine principle. To this 
materialism he added the belief that God endowed matter 
with the principle of life and thought, and that body and 



THE HEROIC POEM — MILTON 24 1 

soul in man are one, not two. The corollary of this belief, 
which Milton unflinchingly accepted, was 'mortalism', 
that is the doctrine that at death 'all of me then shall die', 1 
to be revived again only at the Last Judgment. 2 It will be 
recalled that he also believed that 'the Spirit which is 
given to us is a more certain guide than Scripture'. 3 But 
what I wish to emphasise, rather than these more startling 
heterodoxies, is the humanism of Milton, which links 
him both with the Renaissance and with the Cambridge 
Platonists. By humanism I merely mean, here, a belief 
in the natural dignity and virtue of man, provided that 
by due discipline the passions are subjected to Right 
Reason. Milton stands half-way between those who, like 
Pascal or Blake, hold the utter depravity of the natural 
man, and those who, like Rousseau, believe unreservedly 
in his goodness. Nature, and human nature along with 
it, being originally made out of God's own substance, 
must necessarily be good; but Man, in virtue of his 
reason, has the unique responsibility of moral choice 
('Reason also is choice' 4 ), which means that man is good 
only when Reason is in command of the passions. The 
impulses, though 'naturally' good, are in practice good 
only when controlled by Reason. 

' Reason in man obscur'd, or not obey'd, 
Immediately inordinate desires 
And upstart passions catch the government 
From Reason.' 5 

Herein lies the radical or 'original' sinfulness of man, as 
well as his prerogative. Milton believed in the Fall, but 
he also believed in the power and freedom of the human 
will to stand firm, or to recover itself after a lapse. 

1 Paradise Lost, x. 792. 

* It should be remembered that Milton is here actually in agreement with 
Hobbes. (Cf. p. 105 above.) 

* De Duct. Chr., ch. xxx., Bohn, iv. p. 449. (Cf. pp. 71-2 and 227 above.) 

* P. I., iii. 108. s P. L., xii. 86. 
R 



242 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

In many passages Milton, like the Cambridge Platon- 
ists, exalts 'Reason' as the godlike principle in man, 
meaning by this term, again like them, the principle of 
moral control rather than of intellectual enlightenment. 
Here are a few examples from the De Doctrina Christiana : 

'The Deity has imprinted upon the human mind so many 
unquestionable tokens of himself, and so many traces of him are 
apparent throughout the whole of nature, that no one in his 
senses can remain ignorant of the truth.' 1 

'The existence of God is further proved by that feeling, 
whether we term it conscience, or right reason, which even in 
the worst of characters, is not altogether extinguished.' 2 

Man was originally made in the image of God, and had 
the whole 'law of Nature' implanted and innate in him. 
And even after the Fall, with the 'spiritual death' which 
followed, 

'some remnants of the divine image still exist in us, not wholly 
extinguished by this spiritual death. . . . These vestiges of original 
excellence are visible, first in the understanding . . , Secondly, 
the will is clearly not altogether inefficient in respect of good 
works, or at any rate of good endeavours. . . .' 3 

Man's 'Renovation' is defined as a change whereby 

'the natural mind and will of man being partially renewed by a 
divine impulse, are led to seek the knowledge of God, and for the 
time, at least, undergo an alteration for the better.' 4 

The Law of God is both written and unwritten : the un- 
written being 

'no other than that law of nature given originally to Adam, and 
of which a certain remnant, or imperfect illumination, still 
dwells in the hearts of all mankind ; which in the regenerate, 
under the influence of the Holy Spirit, is daily tending towards a 
renewal of its primitive brightness. .' 5 

1 Bohn, iv. p. 14. 2 ibid., p. 15. 

3 ibid., p. 266 (italics mine, here and below). 

* ibid., p. 323. * ibid., p. 378. 



THE HEROIC POEM — MILTON 243 

This is the language of one who is trying to reconstruct 
protestant doctrine in terms of a humanistic ethic. Milton 
has so far emancipated himself from Calvinistic theology, 
as to believe that there is a godlike principle in Man, and 
that that principle is to be found in the Reason or Un- 
derstanding, and the Will. Whatever feeds the Under- 
standing therefore, and procures true knowledge and 
wisdom, is for him of the highest value; hence the 
importance of study and education. We know that, for 
his own part, he took 'labour and intense study' 1 to be 
his portion in this life. And the purpose of education he 
conceived to be 'to repair the ruins of our first parents 
by regaining to know God aright'. 2 

'God himself is truth; in propagating which, as men display 
a greater integrity and zeal, they approach nearer to the simili- 
tude of God, and possess a greater portion of his love. We can- 
not suppose the Deity envious of truth, or unwilling that it 
should be freely communicated to mankind.' 3 

It was believed of old that Tiresias had been deprived of 
his sight as a punishment for divulging Jove's secrets to 
Man, but Milton, now blind himself as a result of study 
and labour for human enlightenment, disdains the impu- 
tation : 

'The loss of sight, therefore, which this inspired sage, who 
was so eager in promoting knowledge among men, sustained, 
cannot be considered as a judicial punishment.' * 

Rather the blindness of such as Tiresias and Milton is 
a condition of prophetic insight into 

'things invisible to mortal sight.' 

The argument of the Areopagitka in favour of unrestricted 
reading is, of course, familiar: 

1 Reason of Church Government, Bohn, ii. 477-8. 

2 Tractate on Education, Bohn, iii. p. 464. 

3 Second Defence, Bohn, i. p. 236. 

4 ibid., p. 237. 



244 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

'"To the pure all things are pure;" not only meats and 
drinks, but all kinds of knowledge^ whether of good or evil : the 
knowledge cannot defile, nor consequently the books, if the will 
and conscience be not defiled.' 

The famous passage about the knowledge of good and 
evil in this treatise has been as much quoted as anything 
in Milton's prose, but its bearing upon what I have to say 
is so close that I must quote it once again : 

'Good and evil we know in the field of this world grow up 
together almost inseparably; and the knowledge of good is so 
involved and interwoven with the knowledge of evil, and in so 
many cunning resemblances hardly to be discerned, that those 
confused seeds which were imposed upon Psyche as an incessant 
labour to cull out, and sort asunder, were not more intermixed. 
It was from out the rind of one apple tasted, that the knowledge 
of good and evil, as two twins cleaving together, leaped forth into 
the world. And perhaps this is that doom which Adam fell into 
of knowing good and evil; that is to say, of knowing good by 
evil. 

' As therefore the state of man now is ; what wisdom can there 
be to choose, what continence to forbear, without the knowledge 
of evil? He that can apprehend and consider vice with all her 
baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain, and yet distinguish, 
and yet prefer that which is truly better, he is the true wayfaring 
Christian. I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue un- 
exercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and seeks her 
adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland 
is to be run for, not without dust and heat. Assuredly we bring 
not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather; 
that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary. 
That virtue therefore which is but a youngling in the contem- 
plation of evil, and knows not the utmost that vice promises to 
her followers, and rejects it, is but a blank virtue, not a pure; 
her whiteness is but an excremental whiteness ; which was the 
reason why our sage and serious poet Spenser (whom I dare be 
known to think a better teacher than Scotus or Aquinas), de- 
scribing true temperance under the person of Guion, brings him 
in with his palmer through the cave of Mammon, and the bower 
of earthly bliss, that he might see and know, and yet abstain. 



THE HEROIC POEM — MILTON 245 

'Since therefore the knowledge and survey of vice is in this 
world so necessary to the constituting of human virtue, and the 
scanning of error to the confirmation of truth, how can we more 
safely, and with less danger, scout into the regions of sin and 
falsity, than by reading all manner of tractates, and hearing all 
manner of reason?' 1 

'Virtue' for Milton, then, 'consists in the will doing what 
is right in full knowledge of the issues'. 2 And of moral 
knowledge (to close this array of examples) Milton writes 
elsewhere that he who has arrived 

'to know anything distinctly of God, and of his true worship, 
and what is infallibly good and happy in the state of man's life, 
what in itself evil and miserable, though vulgarly not so 
esteemed,' 

has obtained the 'only high valuable wisdom indeed'. 3 

We must now consider the main problem towards 
which this discussion has been leading, namely, what, 
holding these brave humanist views of man and of know- 
ledge, would be Milton's view of The Fall, and how 
would he treat it as the central event of his great poem? 
My reason for discussing this matter here is that in my 
view Milton's handling of this theme furnishes an illus- 
tration of the conflict, in the seventeenth century, between 
pictorial and conceptual thinking. 

I have already stated that Milton believed in a 'Fall' 
in some sense. No true humanist has ever doubted that 
there is in man a radical tendency to err. Aristotle said 
that it was hard to be good, even though virtue was the 
realisation of man's true 'nature'; and modern humanists 
can find in human futility, perversity and laziness ample 
equivalents for the 'original sin' of theology. From the 
humanist standpoint The Fall may be conceptualised as 

1 Areopagitica, Bohn, ii. 67-8. 

2 Tillyard, op. cit., p. 54. 

3 Reason of Church Government, Bohn, ii. 473. 



246 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

the sad condition of mankind, whereby 'video meliora 
proboque, deteriora sequor' \ or any one such surrender to 
impulse might be described as a 'Fall'. It might be sup- 
posed that The Fall would be one of those doctrines 
which Milton would re-state for himself in terms of 
humanist morality; and in fact there is evidence enough 
that he did so. The Fall was the surrender of Reason to 
upstart passions, and its effect was 'spiritual death', or 
the loss of the will's freedom to choose rightly. 

'Reason in Man obscur'd, or not obey'd, 
Immediately inordinate desires 
And upstart passions catch the government 
From Reason.' 

Here Milton, through the mouth of Michael, is speaking 
of The Fall as a fact of experience which he has known in 
his own life, and perhaps still more glaringly in his con- 
tacts with Man as a political animal. He is speaking of 
the same thing, and in the same mode of thought, when 
he writes in the De Doctrina Christiana of 'spiritual death' 
as the punishment of sin. It consists, he says, in 

'the loss, or at least in the obscuration to a great extent of that 
right reason which enabled man to discern the chief good, and in 
which consisted as it were the life of the understanding. ... It 
consists, secondly, in that deprivation of righteousness and liberty 
to do good, and in that slavish submission to sin and the devil, 
which constitutes, as it were, the death of the will.' 1 

It was also a characteristic part of Milton's doctrine on 
this point that this loss of inward liberty was inevitably 
accompanied by, and punished by, loss of political liberty. 
True liberty dwells ever with Right Reason; but 'fallen' 
man is deservedly subject to tyranny. 'Redemption' 
meant the process, possible by God's grace, by which the 
will recovered once again its liberty to do good. 

So much, then, for 'The Fall' considered as expressive 

1 Bohn, iv. p. 265. 



THE HEROIC POEM — MILTON 247 

of a fact in spiritual psychology. But now, what of the 
historical 'Fall' of Genesis? what of man's first dis- 
obedience, and the fruit of that forbidden tree? Milton 
has to speak of this as an expounder of Christian doc- 
trine; as the poet of Paradise Lost he has to sing of this 
above all. Once again we are in face of the characteristic 
seventeenth century situation, in which a picture con- 
fronts a concept; and here, as in all cases where the 
pictorial account was the scriptural one, it must at all 
costs be retained; the Fall as a historical fact must be 
reconciled with the Fall as a condition. This perhaps 
might have presented no particular difficulty but for the 
fact that Genesis, to which Milton must needs adhere, 
represented the Fall as due to, or as consisting of, the 
acquisition by Man of that very knowledge, the Know- 
ledge of good and evil, by the possession of which alone 
Milton the humanist believed man could be truly virtu- 
ous. Here indeed was a strange situation: Milton, 
believing, as we have seen, in 'Knowledge', and in 
'Reason' as choice of good by a free agent cognisant of 
evil, selects as the subject of his greatest poem a fable 
which represents the acquisition of these very things as 
the source of all our woe. It may be said that it is only in 
our fallen state that moral knowledge has become essen- 
tial — that it is only 'as therefore the state of man now is* 
that there can be no 'wisdom to choose', no 'continence 
to forbear', without the knowledge of evil ; that, in a word, 
innocence would have been better than morality. But 
Milton does not really believe this, as is clearly shown by 
his failure to convince us that the prelapsarian life of 
Adam and Eve in the 'happy garden' was genuinely 
happy. 'Assuredly we bring not innocence into the 
world, we bring impurity much rather': this is what 
Milton knew and believed; yet his adherence to Genesis 
involved him in the necessity of representing man's true 



248 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

and primal happiness as the innocence of Eden. Milton's 
treatment of the ancient Hebrew myth (or more probably, 
amalgam of myths) is somewhat analogous to Bacon's 
elucidation of pagan fables; it illustrates the plight of a 
seventeenth century moralist, scholarly and earnest but 
unhistorically-minded, when faced with ancient material 
which anthropology has only recently begun to unravel. 
I am not competent to expound the original meaning, or 
meanings, of the myth of the Tree of Knowledge; nor is 
this necessary for the present argument. It is suggested 
by a competent biblical critic 1 that the story in Genesis is 
of the kind known as 'aetiological', that is, that it 
attempts to account in terms of myth, not for the origin 
of sin, but for the facts of the human situation. Here is 
man, civilised and knowing above the rest of creation, yet 
gaining his bread in the sweat of his brow; while woman 
brings forth her children in sorrow. Why should this be 
so? And why must mankind be clothed while the beasts 
go naked? Alas, this knowledge which has brought 
civilisation and power, this self-consciousness which has 
come upon us, has produced more misery than happiness. 
Perhaps the gods were jealous of man's knowledge, as in 
the stories of Prometheus and Tiresias, and revenged 
themselves for his encroachment on their prerogative by 
bringing all this woe upon him. Or perhaps, to take a 
more charitable (and pious) view, they were anxious to 
spare man the pain of truth. In either case the story 
would be a pessimistic interpretation of evolution. Man 
was driven from the 'Eden of the Unconscious' 2 when he 
began to reason. 

Our concern, however, is not so much with the original 
meaning of the myth as with how Milton faced up to the 
issues which it seemed to him to raise. This much seems 

1 Prof. A. S. Peake, Commentary on the Bible, p. 139. 

2 The phrase is Mr Middleton Murry's. 



THE HEROIC POEM — MILTON 249 

clear, that in the Genesis myth the trees of knowledge and 
of life were unlike all the rest of the vegetation of Eden 
in that they were magical trees; they really did contain 
the 'virtues' implied in their names; man did acquire his 
distinctive knowledge, for better or for worse (apparently 
the ancient mythologist thought it was for worse), by 
eating of the Tree of Knowledge, neither could the gods 
prevent this from being the result; and the prohibition 
was laid upon the fruit because of its magical properties. 
These meanings must have seemed to Milton to lie 
clearly upon the surface of the biblical narrative, and they 
were highly unacceptable to him. He must, moreover, 
have supposed 'knowledge of good and evil' to mean 
knowledge of moral distinctions, and not, what Professor 
Peake tells us it means, scientific 'knowledge of things so 
far as they are useful or harmful'. Now what could 
Milton, with his belief in Right Reason, make of all this 
material? What had the eating of a magic sciential apple 
to do with the Fall that he knew — the usurpation of the 
passions upon Reason ? It was clearly necessary for him 
to explain much away, to re-state the biblical account and 
interpret it in the light of that Spirit within which is 'a 
more certain guide than Scripture'. Let us see, first, how 
Milton attempts this in the prose of De Doctrina 
Christiana x : 

Man was made in the image of God, and 

'had the whole law of nature so implanted and innate in him, 
that he needed no precept to enforce its observance.' 

It follows that if Adam 

'received any additional commands whether respecting the tree 
of knowledge, or the institution of marriage, these commands 
formed no part of the law of nature, which is sufficient of itself 
to teach whatever is agreeable to right reason, that is to say, what- 
ever is intrinsically good.' 

1 The extracts are from chap. x. 



250 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

The ' laws of God ' are thus rationalised as equivalent to 
the laws of nature and reason, the view being the same as 
that held by the Cambridge Platonists, that God does not 
constitute right and wrong by the absolute fiat of his 
despotic will, but that he wills and commands what as a 
matter of fact is right, and because it is so. This is practi- 
cally to supersede the image of a personal God and to 
deify instead the concept 'right', since the latter becomes 
in this view antecedent to God. But because God desired 
the service of free agents, and not of automata, he deliber- 
ately introduced amongst the laws of nature another law 
of a wholly different kind, the taboo upon the Tree of 
Knowledge. This intrusive law was not a law of nature 
like the rest of God's commands. What law of nature 
forbade the acquisition of knowledge, moral or scientific 
— still less the mere eating of an apple? It was a 'posi- 
tive law', that is, the prohibited act became wrong because 
forbidden; it was not prohibited because intrinsically 
wrong. We now come to the most significant point of 
all, the point at which Milton deals most highhandedly 
with the myth. It was wrong to eat the fruit, according 
to him, because it was prohibited, and only because of 
this. He represents the taboo as imposed simply as a test 
of man's obedience: 

'It was necessary that something should be forbidden or com- 
manded as a test of fidelity, and that an act of its own nature in- 
different, in order that man's obedience might be thereby mani- 
fested.' 1 

It was in this direction alone that the unfallen Adam could 
practise free choice, and the choice lay simply between 
obedience and disobedience. But — 'an act of its own 
nature indifferent'? The eating of the fruit can only be 
so regarded by ignoring the magical nature of the tree in 
the original myth, and this is precisely what Milton, 

1 Bohn, iv. p. 221 (my italics). 



THE HEROIC POEM — MILTON 2£I 

because he believed in virtue as conscious moral choice, 
is here compelled to do. No 'knowledge' was in fact 
derived from the fruit; Man was disobedient, and dis- 
obedience against God implies the commission of all 
possible sins. The tree was only named of good and evil, 
he assures us, ''from the even? ; not because it taught man 
the difference between right and wrong, but because 
through the disobedience with which the tree was associ- 
ated man came to know 'good lost, and evil got'. Milton 
does not try to explain why, if the act was in its own nature 
indifferent, the taboo was laid upon that particular tree, 
so significantly distinguished by God himself, before 'the 
event', as the tree of knowledge of good and evil. That 
part of the myth's meaning was irreconcilable with 
Milton's real beliefs. The 'real' Miltonic Fall, the 
obscuration of Reason and the loss of liberty, has to be 
represented as the result of this purely legal transgres- 
sion; the actual eating of the fruit Milton can only 
rationalise as disobedience. 

It remains to point out certain relevant aspects of 
Milton's poetic treatment of the same theme in Paradise 
Lost. As a poet Milton has, of course, to speak pic- 
torially; he has to dramatise, to narrate, to portray, the 
persons and events of the story. In making a -poem at all 
of Paradise Lost, he is in a sense running counter both 
to the temper of the age, and to a strong impulse in his 
own mind, which was moving towards the rationalisation 
of religious imagery. That he was able to believe in his 
own subject-matter as 'real' as well as 'typical' was due, 
as I have suggested, to his sharing the protestant confid- 
ence in the authority of Scripture. That he did so believe 
in his own high argument is evident, I think, from the 
fact that the poem as a whole does not read like allegory. 
The persons have the solidity of real persons; the events 
have the air of having really happened. Satan would 



2^1 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

not be what he is if he were merely the translation into 
picture-language of the abstract idea of evil, or of 
passion. The few appearances of genuine allegory (all 
of them non-scriptural in origin) are at once felt to be on 
a different plane of reality from their context: the char- 
acters of Sin and Death, for example ; the causeway they 
build across Chaos; and the Limbo of Vanity on the 
outer edge of the world. Nevertheless some of the diffi- 
culties of the Christian epic, indicated by Boileau and 
Dryden, 1 were inevitably present to Milton. Certain 
parts of his machinery were necessarily less real to him 
than others ; in particular, of course, God as an epic per- 
sonage was less real than Satan. The whole effort of 
theology for centuries, and particularly in the seventeenth 
century, had been to avoid the contradictions which result 
from conceiving of God pictorially as a magnified human 
potentate. But this is how Milton had to represent him 
if he were to appear as a character in a heroic poem. 
Milton's own insight, like that of the Platonists and many 
other thinkers of the time, led him, in his inmost cogi- 
tation, to translate 'God' as the eternal Law of Right, 
whose service is perfect freedom. But the whole theme 
of Paradise Lost implies a much less conceptualised God, 
one, in fact, whose very existence as a 'person' causes 
most of the difficulties of the story. The inferiority of 
Milton's God to his Satan, both poetically and morally, 
has often been pointed out, 2 and need not be further em- 
phasised here. God had to be deemed omnipresent, omni- 
scient, omnipotent and benevolent, yet ■portrayed as local- 
ised in Heaven, subject to gross attacks from his enemies, 
and administering the universe in a manner which it 
taxed Milton's utmost energies to 'justify'. The weak- 
ness of this part of the machinery may be attributed to 

1 Cf. above, pp. 233-4. 

2 Cf., for example, Shelley's Defence of Poetry. 



THE HEROIC POEM — MILTON 253 

this: that it collapses into fragments at once if Milton's 
own best theological insight is applied to it. As is well 
known, Milton bases his justification of God's ways 
entirely on the fact that Adam fell of his own 'free' will. 

*So without least impulse or shadow of fate, 
Or aught by me immutably foreseen, 
They trespass ; authors to themselves in all 
Both what they judge and what they choose; for so 
I form'd them free, and free they must remain 
Till they enthral themselves. . . .' x 

'Free' here means 'not constrained', exempt from the 
rigour of the divine 'decrees' which otherwise bound 
nature fast in fate. It has, that is to say, the negative 
sense of 'freedom from* external coercion. But Milton is 
also in the habit of using 'freedom' in a profounder, more 
conceptualised sense, and the two planes of meaning some- 
times intersect bewilderingly. This second meaning is 
seen in a passage I have already cited in part more than 
once: 

'Since thy original lapse, true Liberty 
Is lost, which always with Right Reason dwells 
Twinn'd, and from her hath no dividual being: 
Reason in Man obscur'd, or not obey'd, 
Immediately inordinate desires 
And upstart passions catch the government 
From Reason, and to servitude reduce 
Man, till then free.' 2 

'Freedom' in this sense is the service of reason, or volun- 
tary submission to the law which preserves the stars from 
wrong. This meaning even creeps into the last words of 
the first-quoted extract: 

'free they must remain 
Till they enthral themselves ' 

1 From God's speech, P. L., iii. 120. 

2 P. L., xii. 83. 



254 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

'free' here meaning not the 'unconstrained* of the earlier 
lines, but 'reason-serving'. The same sense appears in 
Adam's remark to Eve: 

' But God left free the will, for what obeys 
Reason, is free, and Reason he made right? 1 

According to this view, 'freedom' is only attained when 
'constraint' is absolute, constraint, however, by the Law 
of Reason. Meaning is also found within this view, for 
the negative sense; it becomes 'freedom from' the solici- 
tations of unreason. Now it happens that it is 'freedom' 
in the negative sense — 'freedom from constraint' — that 
Milton wishes to claim for Adam before his Fall. This 
was necessary in order to exonerate God from the charge 
of unjust behaviour, and might serve well enough as long 
as Milton was thinking pictorially. But difficulty arises 
directly we remember that as it is from God, not from 
Charles i., that Adam is to be 'free', his freedom is only 
afreedom-to-lose-freedom, afreedom-to-become-enslaved : 
real freedom being precisely submission to God (Right 
Reason). Adam is free when he is most God-constrained ; 
directly he exercises his unconstrained choice he departs 
from God, and automatically ceases to be 'free'. It is 
only as long as God is being conceived pictorially that 
'freedom from' him can be supposed to be desirable; 
substitute the idea-God (Right Reason) for the picture- 
God, and you produce the contradiction 'freedom-from 
freedom'. There remains, however, a further complica- 
tion. Adam, though free before his fall, had not the full 
spiritual liberty which consists in the voluntary submis- 
sion of a rational being to the law of reason. With the 
exception of his one vulnerable point, his paradoxical 
capacity to lose his freedom, he was really God-con- 
strained, not in the manner of a responsible moral being, 

1 P. L., ix. 351. 



THE HEROIC POEM — MILTON 2 £5 

but in the manner of the animals and the rest of nature. 
He could not but will what was right until, having dis- 
obeyed, he had become capable of sin. Only a being 
capable of sin could know the meaning which Milton 
really attached to the notion of spiritual freedom ; thus 
the Fall was logically a necessary stage in the evolution of 
man. It may be said that Adam and Eve were capable of 
moral choice, and hence of sin, before they ate the fruit, 
otherwise they could not have chosen to disobey God's 
express command ; and Milton, in his endeavour to make 
his epic narrative humanly convincing, certainly has to 
attribute to them some of the frailties of fallen humanity 
in order to make their behaviour plausible. But this 
limited freedom of choice, and its arbitrary connection 
with an inexplicable taboo, did not constitute the full 
'liberty* of Milton's own ripest thought. A man must 
know good and evil much more intimately than prelap- 
sarian Adam could before he can submit with his whole 
being to the control of that divine law in whose service 
is perfect freedom. Milton is thus caught in the tangle 
of his biblical imagery. He is bound to represent the 
unfallen Adam as perfect, made in the image of God ; and 
he is bound to represent the act of disobedience as a 
calamity engineered by the devil. And yet that act repre- 
sented the liberation of man from the beneficent deter- 
minism of Jehovah, and the birth — accompanied, indeed, 
by the throes of sin and suffering — of his capacity for 
true 'liberty'. Milton was a Promethean, a Renaissance 
humanist, in the toils of a myth of quite contrary import, 
a myth which yearned, as no Milton could, for the blank 
innocence and effortlessness of a golden age. He must, 
of course, have intended us to applaud when God says, 
with unpleasant irony: 

'O Sons, like one of us Man is become 
To know both good and evil, since his taste 



256 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

Of that defended fruit; but let him boast 
His knowledge of good lost, and evil got; 
Happier, had it sufficed him to have known 
Good by itself and evil not at all.'' x 

But we do not believe it; and it is hard to conceive that 
Milton did. His own thought is better expressed by the 
Son, where he prophesies to the Father that repentant 
Man will at length bring forth 

'Fruits of more pleasing savour from thy seed 
Sown with contrition in his heart, than those 
Which his own hand manuring all the trees 
Of Paradise could have produc't, ere fall'n 
From innocence' 2 

and by Michael, when he comforts Adam with the 

assurance : 

'Then wilt thou not be loath 
To leave this Paradise, but shalt possess 
A Paradise within thee, happier far.' 3 

4. The Tree of Knowledge in ' Paradise Lost'. 

There is a significant difference between Milton's 
poetic handling of this subject in Paradise Lost and his 
prose exposition in De Doctrina Christiana. In the poem 
he is of necessity tied closely to the biblical story, and he 
cannot therefore ignore the magical properties of the 
forbidden tree as he could when he was rationalising the 
whole myth in prose. In fact, almost every possible objec- 
tion to the myth in its literal acceptation is to be found 
expressed in the poem, and it is therefore clear that Milton 
had fully pondered all its implications. But it is to be 
observed that all the analysis of the tree-allegory is attri- 
buted to Satan. It is Satan who is made to represent the 

1 P. L., xi. 84 (my italics). 2 P. L., xi. 26. 

8 P. L. y xii. 585. Cf. De Doct. Chr., ch. xiv., in which Milton says that through 
Christ man is ' raised to a far more excellent state of grace and glory than that 
from which he had fallen.' 



THE HEROIC POEM MILTON 257 

tree as really knowledge-bringing. Milton, in putting 
into the mouth of Satan all his own criticisms of the myth 
as it stands, is virtually rejecting its original meaning and 
preparing the ground for the rationalisation which he 
preferred. For Milton it was Satanic to suppose that the 
myth meant what it said ; therefore it must mean some- 
thing else. 

The moment Satan hears of the Tree of Knowledge he 
makes the relevant criticism : 

' Knowledge forbidd'n ? 
Suspicious, reasonless. Why should their Lord 
Envy them that ? Can it be sin to know, 
Can it be death ? And do they only stand 
By ignorance, is that their happy state, 
The proof of their obedience and their faith ? 

Envious commands, invented with design 

To keep them low whom knowledge might exalt.' 1 

It is instructive to compare Satan's reasoning with Mil- 
ton's own in Areopagitka. 2 Their close parallel shows 
that if Milton had not managed to find a meaning for the 
Tree-myth more acceptable to him than its surface (and 
probably real) meaning, he would have agreed with Satan. 
If the myth, plainly interpreted, were divine Truth, then 
Milton's highest wisdom was Satanic sophistry. But of 
course the plain interpretation was wrong, so Satan (and 
Milton) could be allowed to pulverise it to his heart's 
content. As early as Areopagitka Milton had settled upon 
his own explanation ; Adam learnt nothing from the tree, 
he merely fell into the fate of 'knowing good by evil', 
that is, of experiencing sin and misery and contrasting 
them with past innocence. And this is represented as 
the true theory of the tree throughout Paradise Lost: 

'Knowledge of good bought dear by knowing ill.' 3 
1 P.L., iv. 515. 2 Cf. above, p. 244. 3 P. L., iv. 222. 



2^8 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

The easiness of God's sole charge is several times 
mentioned : 

'This one, this easy charge, of all the trees 
In Paradise that bear delicious fruit 
So various, not to taste that only tree 
Of Knowledge . . .' 1 

'that sole command 
So easily obey'd.' 2 

This view implies the theory of the De Doctrina Christiana, 
that the prohibition was applied to an act 'indifferent in 
itself. It would not have been 'easy' to abstain from 
knowledge freely to be grasped, and in fact it was by 
insisting upon the magic virtue of the fruit that Satan 
successfully tempted Eve. The loquacious Serpent 
answers her astonished enquiries, it will be recalled, by 
explaining that he is able to speak because he has already 
tasted the fruit himself; it produced, he says, 

'Strange alteration in me, to degree 

Of Reason in my inward powers, and speech 

Wanted not long, though to this shape retain'd. 

Thenceforth tp speculations high or deep 

I turn'd my thoughts, and with capacious mind 

Consider'd all things visible in Heav'n, 

Or Earth, or middle. . . .' 3 

The Tempter attributes to the fruit powers of universal 
enlightenment; it can give scientific knowledge — 

'O sacred, wise and wisdom-giving Plant! 
Mother of science ! now I feel thy power 
Within me clear, not only to discern 
Things in their causes, but to trace the ways 
Of highest agents. . . . ' 4 

— and, of course, it imparts its own specific gift of moral 
knowledge: 

1 P. L., iv. 420 (Adam to Eve). 2 P. L., vii. 46. 

3 P. L., ix. 599. * P. L., ix. 679. 



THE HEROIC POEM MILTON 259 

'knowledge of good and evil; 
Of good, how just? Of evil, if what is evil 
Be real, why not known, since easier shunn'd?' 

'Why then was this forbid? Why but to awe, 
Why but to keep you low and ignorant, 
His worshippers ; he knows that in the day 
You eat thereof, your eyes, that seem so clear 
Yet are but dim, shall perfectly be then 
Open'd and clear'd; and ye shall be as Gods, 
Knowing both good and evil as they know.' x 

Satan, applying to the myth the equipment of a seven- 
teenth century rational theologian, easily exposes its 
weaknesses; he questions if 'the Gods' (note the pagan 
implication) really produced all things: 

'if they all things, who enclos'd 
Knowledge of good and evil in this tree, 
That whoso eats thereof, forthwith attains 
Wisdom without their leave?' 

On the other hand, 

'What can your knowledge hurt him, or this tree 
Impart against his will if all be his?' 

All these reasonings of Satan show that Milton had con- 
sidered all the consequences of supposing the Tree to 
have been really the mother of science and of morality. 
He averts these consequences by making the Tree a 
deceiving tree; it does not really contain, magically en- 
closed within it, the knowledge promised by its title. No 
sooner is the fatal act accomplished than the fruit turns 
out to be 'false fruit', 'fallacious fruit', 2 engendering, not 
godlike knowledge, but intoxication and sensuality. All 
they had 'gained', they found, was sexual self-conscious- 
ness. Thus their 'knowledge of good and evil', the name 

1 See the whole speech, P. L., ix. 679 ff. 

2 P. L., ix. ion and 1046. 



26o THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

given by God himself to the tree, turns out to mean 
merely that 

'We know 
Both good and evil, good lost and evil got.' * 

After sensuality, the other passions are awakened : 

'anger, hate, 
Mistrust, suspicion, discord; and shook sore 
Their inward state of mind, calm region once 
And full of peace, now tost and turbulent: 
For Understanding rul'd not, and the Will 
Heard not her lore; both in subjection now 
To sensual Appetite, who from beneath 
Usurping over sovran Reason claim'd 
Superior sway. . . .' 2 

The psychological Fall, the result of disobedience not of 
knowledge, was now complete. 

One further question must be raised: What of the 
Tree of Life ? Even Milton cannot ignore the awkward 
fact that in Genesis Adam is expelled from the Garden of 
Eden, lest, having become as one of the gods by knowing 
good and evil, he now 'put forth his hand, and take also of 
the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever : therefore the 
Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden.' 3 If 
this tree really conferred immortality against God's will, 
so Milton-Satan might have argued, where was God's 
omnipotence? Or if it, too, was a false, fallacious tree, 
why need it matter if Adam ate of it (it had not been 
tabooed previously)? Milton's evasion of this difficulty 
is characteristic. He was not interested in the Tree of 
Life, so he dismisses the offending text with a nonchalant 
sophism. I will present it in italics without further 
comment. God says, in his speech after the Fall: 

'Lest therefore his now bolder hand 
Reach also of the tree of Life, and eat, 

1 P. L., ix. 1070. % P. L., ix. 1 123. 3 Genesis, iii. 22. 



THE HEROIC POEM MILTON 26 1 

And live for ever, dream at least to live 
For ever, to remove him I decree.' 

Although Milton thus seems clearly to have thought it 
a Satanic suggestion to suppose that God desired to with- 
hold any vital knowledge from man — 'we cannot suppose 
the Deity envious of truth, or unwilling that it should be 
communicated to man,' he wrote in the Defensio Secunda, 
a work probably contemporary 1 with the actual planning 
of Paradise Lost — he was yet prepared to use a portion of 
the significance of the original myth. For there were 
kinds of 'knowledge' which even Milton considered per- 
nicious and 'forbidden', and he is willing to believe that 
the sin of our first parents included aspiring after these. 
For Milton, as for Bacon and all the anti-scholastics of the 
seventeenth century, this forbidden knowledge was con- 
nected with the speculative hubris which presumed to pry 
into the why as well as the how of natural and divine laws, 
in a real sense 'affecting Godhead'. The angel Raphael, 
answering Adam's legitimate enquiries about the Crea- 
tion — questions which 

'we not to explore the secrets ask 
Of his eternal empire, but the more 
To magnify his works, the more we know' 

replies that he has received commission 

'to answer thy desire 
Of knowledge within bounds ; beyond abstain 
To ask, nor let thine own inventions hope 
Things not revealed. . . . 
Enough is left besides to search and know.' 2 

There is, I think, a glance at scholasticism in 'thine own 
inventions'. Adam further expresses curiosity about the 

1 1654. Dr Tillyard says it is ' the one prose work that sprang directly from 
the mood which first conceived Paradise Lost.' op. cit., p. 193. (Cf. above, 
p. 243.) 

3 P. L., vii. 95 and 119. 



262 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

system of the heavens, and wonders that the celestial 
bodies should be so tasked for the sake of the sedentary 
earth. Raphael in reply uses one of Galileo's arguments 
against the scholastic assumption about the 'perfection' 
of heavenly bodies (though in a different connection): 
consider, he says, 

'that great 
Or bright infers not excellence : the Earth 
Though in comparison of Heav'n, so small, 
Nor glistering, may of solid good contain 
More plenty than the sun that barren shines.' x 

But, after non-committally propounding to Adam both 
the Ptolemaic and Copernican systems — though I think 
with a preference for that sponsored by the Tuscan artist; 
it was not his theories, but the 'epicycles' of mediaeval 
astronomy, which might move God's laughter — Raphael 
exhorts Adam to desist from such enquiries : 

'Solicit not thy thoughts with matters hid, 
Leave them to God above . . . 

... be lowly wise : 
Think only what concerns thee and thy being.' 

And Adam dutifully agrees that the proper study of man- 
kind is man — 

'That not to know at large of things remote 
From use, obscure and subtle, but to know 
That which before us lies in daily life, 
Is the prime wisdom ; what is more, is fume, 
Or emptiness, or fond impertinence, 
And renders us in things that most concern 
Unpractis'd, unprepar'd, and still to seek.' 

It may be that in his later disillusioned years, and espe- 
cially in his blindness, Milton underwent a bitter reaction 
against the much reading of his youth. In these words 
of Adam we have an anticipation of the much more 

1 P. L., viii. 90. 



THE HEROIC POEM MILTON 263 

sweeping, and more petulantly worded, rejection of learning 
in Paradise Regained. 1 But education, for Milton, had 
always been education for life — 'that which fits a man 
to perform justly, skilfully and magnanimously all the 
offices, both private and public, of peace and war'; 2 and 
the Milton who condemned the 'intellective abstractions 
of logic and metaphysics ' offered to tender youth at Cam- 
bridge as an 'asinine feast of sowthistles and brambles' 
would have no difficulty in associating this sort of know- 
ledge with the Fall of Man. We are told that the sin of 
Eve included 

'expectation high 
Of knowledge, nor was Godhead from her thought.' 3 

And Adam, though his first thought is simply to share 
Eve's fate, begins to conjecture the same as he approaches 
his own fall. In speaking to Michael afterwards, Adam 
twice 4 ascribes his fall to seeking forbidden knowledge, 
although this is certainly not made to appear his real 
motive in Book ix. The fact is, I think, that Milton, 
having emptied the myth of Genesis of most of its original 
meaning, was not unwilling to put back into it, by way of 
compensation, something of his own dislike of scholas- 
ticism. In somewhat similar fashion he enlarges the 
significance of Adam's disobedience by making it a 
capital instance of surrender to 'female charm'; and in 
this manner he is able not only to harmonise the historical 
fall with the psychological fall, but also to vent much of 
his personal resentment against womankind. 

1 Bk. iv. 286 ff. * On Education, Bohn, iii. p. 467. 

3 P. L., ix. 789. 4 Bk. xii. 278 and 560. 



CHAPTER XI 

yohn Locke 

' Why need I name thy Boyle, whose pious search 
Amid the dark recesses of his works 
The great Creator sought ? And why thy Locke, 
Who made the whole internal world his own ? ' 

[Thomson's Seasons.] 
i 

THERE was every reason why Thomson, apostro- 
phising happy Britannia as the home of Liberty 
and Plenty, and celebrating her many glorious 
sons from King Alfred to Newton, should mention the 
name of John Locke, and there are also good reasons why 
our present studies should terminate with him. Locke 
stands at the end of the seventeenth century, and at the 
beginning of the eighteenth; his work is at once a 
summing-up of seventeenth century conclusions and the 
starting-point for eighteenth century enquiries. The 
early eighteenth century did not, like the early seven- 
teenth, witness a great intellectual revolution; it merely 
inherited the results and consolidated the certainties of the 
previous century. Addison's England was fortunate in 
having behind it not only the glorious Revolution of 1 68 8, 
but such a poet as Milton, such a physicist as Newton, 
and such a philosopher as Locke. All the dearest ambi- 
tions of men and of Britons had been realised; the Con- 
stitution had been established and 'freedom' secured; 
Homer and Vergil had been equalled if not outdone, the 
law which preserves the stars from wrong had been made 
manifest, and the true workings of the mind had been 
revealed. All these things had been done not only by 
Englishmen, but by Christians. The brilliant explana- 
tions of Newton and Locke had not only removed the 

264 



JOHN LOCKE 265 

strain of living in a mysterious universe, but confirmed 
the principles of religion. The sense of being at last in 
possession of the Truth, which gladdened this enviable 
age, shines clearly throughout the passage of Thomson 
from which I have quoted, and its satisfaction at finding 
this Truth so conformable to Faith as well as to Reason 
is seen in the poet's apostrophe to the True Philosophy as 

' Daughter of Heaven! that slow-ascending still, 
Investigating sure the chain of things, 
With radiant finger points to Heaven again.' 

We need not wonder that Addison, the mouthpiece of 
the age, should have regarded it as his appointed task to 
'engage my Reader to consider the World in its most 
agreeable Lights'. 1 

The Newtonian world-picture, and Locke's picture of 
the mind, came to be, in the eighteenth century, the 
normal possession of the educated and enlightened of 
Europe. Locke, in particular, has been described as 'the 
writer whose influence pervades the eighteenth century 
with an almost scriptural authority'. 2 This remark is 
doubtless truer of Locke's political writings than of his 
philosophy, for as a recent editor of the Essay Concerning 
Human Understanding has said, 'the subsequent course of 
European philosophy consists largely of a series of 
attempts to clear up the ambiguities of Locke's termino- 
logy and to surmount the difficulties created for him by 
his presuppositions'. 3 Nevertheless it was Locke who 
determined the direction of this 'subsequent course', and 
he may truly be called, after Descartes, the founder of 
modern philosophy. For Addison, and the men of letters 
in general, he was 'the philosopher', somewhat as Aris- 
totle had been for the schoolmen. The supremacy which 

1 Spectator, No. 387. 

a Cobban, Edmund Burke and the Revolt against the Eighteenth Century, p. 16. 

3 Pringle-Pattison, Introduction to his edition of Locke's Essay, p. xlvi. 



266 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

Milton held in heroic poetry, and Newton in physics, 
belonged in philosophy to Locke. Moreover, his auth- 
ority was not confined to this one sphere; indeed, the 
prestige of his philosophical work was itself ascribable 
to the wide acceptance of his views on political liberty 
and religious toleration. As the philosophic vindicator 
of the Glorious Revolution he was, unlike Hobbes, in 
the position to supply his generation with precisely the 
doctrine most congenial to them. In celebrating the 
final triumph of Whig principles over the Stuarts, 
Locke founded the 'liberal' tradition of political thought 
which was vigorous in the eighteenth century, and 
inspired both the American and the French Revolu- 
tions. Locke's authority was behind the eighteenth 
century belief in the inalienable rights of the human 
individual as such, and in the 'natural' and 'original' 
liberties of man. 

'Man being born, . . . with a title to perfect freedom and un- 
controlled enjoyment of all the rights and privileges of the law 
of nature ... no one can be put out of this estate and subjected 
to the political power of another, without his own consent.' 1 

The 'State of Nature', in Locke, is so far from resembling 
the 'ill condition' described by Hobbes, that it approxim- 
ates rather to the Eden of the religious tradition, or the 
golden age of the poets. After Locke, this conception 
becomes an expression of the current faith that, on the 
whole, things if left to themselves are more likely to work 
together for good than if interfered with by meddling 
man. To this conception of 'Nature' as a system of 
divine laws whose workings, if unimpeded by govern- 
mental or other interference, will produce the greatest 
happiness of the greatest number, must be ascribed the 
laissez-faire economics of later times, and the confidence 

1 Treatise of Civil Government, bk. ii. sects. 87 and 95. 



JOHN LOCKE 267 

in the virtues of unrestricted competition in industry. In 
Locke's political theory the thing to be explained was, not 
by what fortunate device men escaped from the State of 
Nature, but what motives could ever have induced them 
to desert their Eden. The explanation he gives is highly 
characteristic. In the state of nature, in spite of all its 
advantages, Property was insecure, and it was to remedy 
this defect that men entered into the Social Contract. 
Locke is never more completely the spokesman of the 
Whig oligarchy than in his insistence on the protection of 
property as the characteristic function of government. 
The 'Rights of Man', as yet, are the rights of Pro- 
prietors. Locke is the father of nineteenth century as 
well as eighteenth century 'liberalism'. 

In his religious writings, too, as we shall see more fully 
presently, 1 he gave his age just what it was ready to 
receive, a reasoned plea for toleration and a demonstration 
of the Reasonableness of Christianity. It was Locke's 
appointed task to work up into a system all the assump- 
tions about God, Nature and Man which, as the seven- 
teenth century storm-clouds drew off, seemed to most 
men to stand firm and unquestionable in the light of 
common day. Locke is like Milton in numerous ways — 
in his Puritan upbringing, in his passion for liberty, in his 
rational piety, in his feeling for human dignity, in his views 
on education, in his sense of the limits of human know- 
ledge, in his acceptance of Scripture ; 2 but he is a Milton 
without the garland and the singing-robes. It is wholly 
in the cool element of prose that Locke lives and moves. 
The passionate sense of life as perilous, glorious or tragic 
which inspired Milton to prophecy, whether in prose or in 
verse, has all departed; instead, there is a feeling of 

1 Cf. below, pp. 279-80. 

2 And not least, perhaps, in ' long choosing and beginning late '. Locke 
was well over fifty when his first published work appeared. 



268 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

security, of confidence in the rationality of the universe, 
in the virtuousness of man, in the stability of society, and 
in the deliverances of enlightened common sense; while 
underneath are the everlasting arms. The things that 
were most real to Locke were also the things that were 
most real to the majority of his readers for several genera- 
tions. The very limitations of his mind fitted him to be 
the accepted thinker of an age which had lost the taste for 
spiritual exploration. There is a safeness in Locke's 
mental habits which made him a fit guide for readers of 
the Spectator \ when he comes to a speculative precipice 
he does not peer over it with dread or fascination, but 
gives it a glance and returns promptly to the path of 
common sense. 

Locke's prose style is the best index of his mind, and 
the mind of his age as well. Like Wren's architecture, it 
is harmonious, lucid and severe, rising occasionally into a 
dome of manly eloquence. The prose of Browne, Milton 
or even Hobbes looks Gothic by the side of it. In reading 
Locke we are conscious of being in the presence of a mind 
which has come to rest in the 'philosophic' world-view. 
There is no more of the metaphysical flicker from world to 
world, none of the old imagery struck out in the heat of 
struggle or in the ardour of discovery. Locke writes 
philosophy in the tone of well-bred conversation, and 
makes it his boast to have discarded the uncouth and 
pedantic jargon of the schools. His air is that of a gentle- 
man who, along with a group of like-minded friends, pro- 
poses to conduct a disinterested enquiry into truth. The 
very ease of his prose betokens a mind at rest in its own 
assumptions, and reveals how fully Locke could count on 
these being also the assumptions of his readers. His 
vocabulary is almost wholly abstract and uncoloured; 
what he offers us is always the reasoning of a grave and 
sober man, not the visions of enthusiasm or the fictions of 



JOHN LOCKE 269 

poetry. Compare, for example, his comment on credo 
quia impossibile with Browne's : 

* As for those wingy Mysteries in Divinity, and airy subtleties 
in Religion, which have unhing'd the brains of better heads, they 
never stretched the Pia Mater of mine. ... I love to lose myself 
in a mystery, to pursue my Reason to an altitudo! ... I can 
answer all the Objections of Satan and my rebellious reason with 
that odd resolution I learned of Tertullian, Certum est quia 
impossibile est? (Religio Medici, i. 9.) 

Locke writes : 

'Religion, which should most distinguish us from beasts, and 
ought most peculiarly to elevate us as rational creatures above 
brutes, is that wherein men often appear most irrational, and 
more senseless than beasts themselves. Credo quia impossibile 
est : "I believe because it is impossible", might, in a good man, 
pass for a sally of zeal, but would prove a very ill rule for men 
to choose their opinions or religion by.' {Human Understanding, 
iv. 1 8, sect. 11.) 

In order to illustrate Locke's use, in stating a philosoph- 
ical point, of purely abstract language, stripped of 
rhetorical colouring, one might juxtapose Glanvill's above- 
quoted x passage about the union of soul and body with a 
deliverance of Locke on the same topic : 

'How the purer Spirit is united to this Clod, is a knot too hard 
for fallen Humanity to unty. . . . The freezing of the words in 
the air in the northern climes, is as conceivable as this strange 
union. . . . And to hang weights on the wings of the winde 
seems far more intelligible.' (Canity of Dogmatizing, p. 20.) 

'As the ideas of sensible secondary qualities which we have in 
our minds can by us be no way deduced from bodily causes, nor 
any correspondence or connexion be found between them and 
those primary qualities which . . . produce them in us; so, on 
the other side, the operation of our minds upon our bodies is as 
inconceivable. How any thought should produce a motion in 
body, is as remote from the nature of our ideas, as how any body 
should produce any thought in the mind.' (Human Under- 
standing, iv. 3, sect. 28.) 

1 pp. 84 and 175. 



270 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

The man who writes 'remote from the nature of our 
ideas' where his predecessor wrote 'a knot too hard for 
fallen humanity to unty' is one who has tacitly agreed 
with his readers to keep the 'pure glass of the under- 
standing' as free as possible from the 'gross dew' 1 of 
imagination. Truly, as John Smith wrote (quoting 
Plutarch), 'God hath now taken away from his Oracles 
Poetrie, and the variety of dialect, and circumlocution, 
and obscuritie', 2 and has bidden them speak, instead, in 
the most 'intelligible' language exclusively. 

I have ventured to compare Locke with Milton ; but a 
comparison, say, of their respective essays on Education 
reveals, together with many ideas held in common, an 
instructive difference in tone and aim — the difference, one 
might perhaps say, between Renaissance and Augustan 
ethics. Both believe in education for life and not for 
learning's sake only; and both believe that an incredible 
syllabus may be got through 'between twelve and twenty, 
less time than is now bestowed in pure trifling at grammar 
and sophistry.' 3 But whereas Milton aims at inspiring his 
pupils with 'high hopes of living to be brave men, and 
worthy patriots, dear to God and famous to all ages', and 
'infusing into their young breasts such an ingenuous and 
noble ardour, as would not fail to make many of them 
renowned and matchless men', Locke, with the general 
aim of producing a 'sound mind in a sound body', has 
more particularly in view the 'breeding' of a 'gentleman's 
son' rather than the rearing of heroes or saints. He dis- 
courses of the things that are 'convenient and necessary 
to be known by a gentleman'; and we feel that we are 
nearer to Lord Chesterfield than to Milton when Locke 
tells us that 'it is necessary in this learned age' for a 
gentleman to study natural philosophy 'to fit himself for 

1 Cf. above, p. 141. 2 Cf. above, p. 154. 

3 Milton's tractate On Education, Bohn, vol. iii. p. 467. 



JOHN LOCKE 271 

conversation', and when he prescribes dancing-lessons as 
the cure for clownishness. Milton 's heroic tone is absent ; 
and it will suffice for Locke's ideal pupil, whose lot is cast 
in a less warlike age, to conduct himself in accordance 
with the dictates of Reason, Religion and Good Breeding. 1 

When Voltaire visited England in 1 726 he found to his 
joy that it was the land of liberty and philosophy, and as 
Locke was the recognised exponent of both these things, 
Voltaire not unnaturally regarded him with enthusiastic 
admiration. In his Lettres Philosophiques on the subject of 
England, Voltaire helped to make both Locke and New- 
ton better known in France, and his account of Locke may 
serve here to show what the eighteenth century considered 
Locke to have achieved in philosophy, and why his 
thought was so acceptable to them. 'Our Des Cartes\ 
says Voltaire, concluding an ironic survey of the course of 
philosophic speculation from Greece onwards, 

'Our Des Cartes, born to discover the Errors of Antiquity, 
and at the same Time to substitute his own ; and hurried away 
by that systematic Spirit which throws a Cloud over the Minds 
of the greatest Men, thought he had demonstrated that the Soul 
is the same Thing as Thought, in the same Manner as Matter, 
in his Opinion, is the same as Extension. He asserted, that Man 
thinks eternally, and that the Soul, at its coming into the Body, 
is inform'd with the whole Series of metaphysical Notions; 
knowing God, infinite Space, possessing all abstract Ideas ; in a 
Word, completely endued with the most sublime Lights, which 
it unhappily forgets at its issuing from the Womb. . . . Such a 
Multitude of Reasoners having written the Romance of the Soul, 
a Sage at last arose, who gave, with an Air of the Greatest 
Modesty, the History of it.'' 2 

Locke himself has described the genesis of the Essay Con- 
cerning Human Understanding. Five or six friends met in 

1 An actual and not unworthy product of Locke's system was the 3rd Earl of 
Shaftesbury, author of Characteristics, whose education Locke superintended. 

2 Letters Concerning the English Nation (London, 1733), p. 97 (my italics). 



272 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

his room 1 to discuss the principles of morality and re- 
vealed religion, and found themselves 'quickly at a stand 
by the difficulties that rose on every side'. 

'After we had a while puzzled ourselves, without coming any 
nearer a resolution of those doubts which perplexed us, it came 
into my thoughts, that we took a wrong course; and that, before 
we set ourselves upon enquiries of that nature, it was necessary 
to examine our own abilities, and see what objects our understand- 
ings were or were not fitted to deal with.' 2 

The commonwealth of learning has its master-builders, 
such as Boyle, Huygenius and 'the incomparable Mr 
Newton ' ; Locke for his part will modestly content him- 
self with the office of 'clearing away some of the rubbish 
that lies in the way to Knowledge*. We are reminded of 
Sprat when Locke tells us that he means, in particular, the 
'learned but frivolous use of uncouth, affected, or unin- 
telligible terms', whereby philosophy has incurred the 
reputation of being unfit 'to be brought into well-bred 
company and polite conversation'. Locke begins, then, 
characteristically, by deliberately limiting the field of dis- 
course. Not only the Baconian and the Augustan, but 
also the Milton who speaks through the angel Raphael, 3 
are united in Locke when he assures us that 'our business 
here is not to know all things, but those which concern 
our conduct'. 

'We shall not have much reason to complain of the narrow- 
ness of our minds, if we will but employ them about what may 
be of use to us ; for of that they are very capable ; and it will be 
an unpardonable as well as childish peevishness, if we undervalue 
the advantages of our knowledge, and neglect to improve it to 
the ends for which it was given us, because there are some things 
that are set out of the reach of it.' 4 

1 Presumably about the year 1670. Locke spent twenty years in meditating 
the Essay, which first appeared in its complete form in 1690. 

2 Essay, Epistle to the Reader (my italics). 

3 Cf. above, pp. 261-2. 4 Essay, i. 1, sects 4-7. 



JOHN LOCKE 273 

The true procedure, and the method Locke follows him- 
self, is first ' to take a survey of our own understandings, 
examine our own powers, and see to what things they 
were adapted'. It is in vain for us to 'let loose our 
thoughts into the vast ocean of Being ' ; are not the empty 
and presumptuous logomachies of scholasticism there to 
warn us of this? It is for us to be lowly wise, and solicit 
not our thoughts with matters hid ; 1 or, to use Locke's 
own words, which are singularly close to Milton's, to seek 
'for satisfaction in a quiet and secure possession of truths 
that most concern(ed) us'. The proper study of mankind 
is man, though, as we shall see shortly, God may and 
must be scanned in Revelation. Locke, again like Milton, 
retained to the end the Puritan reverence for Scripture. 

It is not my purpose here to offer a critical summary of 
the argument of Locke's most celebrated work; this has 
many times been done already, and by writers far better 
qualified for the task. I will merely try, in what follows, 
to disengage the fundamental certainties of this repre- 
sentative thinker of the late seventeenth century, and to 
indicate their significance for religion and for poetry. 



In the first part of the Essay Locke, employing the 
'historical, plain method' so highly approved of by Vol- 
taire, enquires into 'the ways whereby our understandings 
come to attain those notions of things we have '. It is well 
known that Locke derives all our ideas from Experience, 
which in turn is made up of Sensation and Reflection. 

'All those sublime thoughts which tower above the clouds, 
and reach as high as heaven itself, take their rise and footing 
here: in all that great extent wherein the mind wanders in those 
remote speculations it may seem to be elevated with, it stirs not 

1 Cf. Paradise Lost, viii. 167, and cf. above, p. 262. 



274 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

one jot beyond those ideas which sense or reflection have offered 
for its contemplation.' 

It must undoubtedly be mentioned first amongst Locke's 
assumptions, that our minds become furnished in the 
course of actual contact with reality; that it is only by 
drinking in the soul of things that we become wise. The 
whole force of Locke's polemic against 'innate' ideas and 
principles springs from his presupposition that we must 
each one of us build up our own being for ourselves out 
of our own dealings with the universe, not relying upon 
'common notions' which are said to be from God, but are 
really the received opinions of country or of party, or the 
sacrosanct dogmas of tradition. God has not 'stamped' 
any 'truths' upon the mind; but he has furnished us with 
faculties which sufficiently serve for the discovery of all 
we need to know. He gives us powers of sensation and 
reflection, not information ready-made, just as he gives us, 
not bridges or houses, but hands and materials. We 
should seek our knowledge, then, in the consideration of 
'things themselves' (our minds are themselves included 
amongst these 'things'), and use our own, not other men's 
thoughts. 

We shall have to return to Locke's account of sensa- 
tion afterwards in speaking of his significance for poetic 
theory. For the moment our concern is with his views on 
the relative validity of our various ideas when acquired 
rather than with their sources, and I propose therefore to 
deal first with the material of Book iv. of the Essay, which 
treats of what knowledge we have by our ideas, and the 
degrees of its certainty. 

Locke's theory of knowledge reveals that quality which 
his philosophy shares with the Church of England and 
perhaps other English things, its power to comprehend 
in a vague synthesis principles really belonging to oppo- 



JOHN LOCKE 275 

site schools of thought. He begins by laying down that 

'since the mind, in all its thoughts and reasonings, hath no other 
immediate object but its own ideas, which it alone does or can 
contemplate, it is evident that our knowledge is only conversant 
about them.' x 

Thus knowledge is defined as the perception of the agree- 
ment or disagreement of ideas with each other; we perceive, 
for instance, first, that one idea is different from another 
(white is not black); secondly, we perceive the particular 
relation one idea holds to another, as of greater or less, 
before and after, etc. ; thirdly, we perceive the co-existence 
of certain ideas, as of yellowness, weight, solubility in 
aqua regia, and the rest, which make up the complex idea 
'gold'. So far all these kinds of knowledge are confined 
within the closed circle of the mind and relate solely to its 
contents. But then Locke immediately proceeds to enu- 
merate a fourth kind, which is knowledge of 'real exist- 
ence', that is to say, of real 'things' agreeing to the ideas 
we have 'of them. It is clear that this is not the percep- 
tion of any relation 'between ideas' at all, but involves two 
assumptions, first the existence of objective 'things', and 
secondly, the possibility of a relationship between these 
things and the ideas we have of them. Locke does, how- 
ever, place our knowledge of things by sensation in the 
lowest of his three degrees of certainty. These three 
degrees are: 

1. Intuition. 

2. Demonstration. 

3. Sensation. 

Intuition is the perception of self-evident truths, and has 
the highest degree of certainty. Demonstration aims at 
showing the connection between ideas which, owing to 
their distance from each other, cannot be compared by 

1 Essay, iv. 1, sect. 1. 



276 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

simple intuition. It proceeds by constructing a bridge of 
intermediate ideas between those to be compared, and 
thus revealing the nature of their connection. Demon- 
stration can produce certainty, though inevitably not with 
the same immediacy as intuition. Lastly, there are 'the 
ideas we receive from an external object' by Sensation. 
It is indeed an intuitive certainty that when we have such 
an idea, the idea is in our minds ; but 

'whether there be anything more than barely that idea in our 
minds, whether we can thence certainly infer the existence of 
anything without us which corresponds to that idea, is that 
whereof some men think there may be a question made.' x 

But this was precisely the sort of speculative possibility 
from which Locke's common sense recoiled. He admits 
that it theoretically renders our knowledge of external 
things less certain than the two former degrees of know- 
ledge, but it is clear that in practice Locke is as certain of 
this as he is of anything. His replies to the supposed 
sceptic are significant; let him 'please to dream that I 
make him this answer' — that there is a manifest differ- 
ence between dreaming of being in a fire, and being actu- 
ally in it; and that as we indubitably find that pleasure 
and pain follow 

'upon the application of certain objects to us, whose existence we 
perceive, or dream that we perceive, by our senses; this certainty 
is as great as our happiness and misery, beyond which we have no 
concernment to know or to be. y 2 

There are three kinds of realities or 'existences' of 
which Locke was certain, and these correspond again to 
the three degrees of knowledge just mentioned. These 
are (A) Our own existence, which we know by Intuition; 

(B) God's existence, which we know by Demonstration; 

(C) Other Things, which we know by Sensation. I will 

1 Essay, iv. 2, sect. 14. 2 ibid, (my italics). 



JOHN LOCKE 277 

speak of these in the same order, taking occasion to dis- 
cuss Locke's general religious views under (B), and the 
significance of his sensationalism for poetry under (C). 

A. Our Own Existence. 

Locke agrees with Descartes in regarding our own 
existence as the first of all certainties. 

'I think, I reason, I feel pleasure and pain: can any of these 
be more evident to me than my own existence?' x 

Locke assumes, that is to say, that these immediately in- 
tuited experiences presuppose a 'substance', the ego, in 
which they inhere, and of which they are in a sense modi- 
fications. But he characteristically blurs the sharp outline 
of Descartes' definitions. He will not allow, for instance, 
that 'thought' is the 'essence' of the soul, but makes it 
rather its function, or activity, which may at one time be 
in operation and at another quiescent. 

' I confess myself to have one of those dull souls that doth not 
perceive itself always to contemplate ideas ; nor can conceive it 
any more necessary for the soul always to think, than for the 
body always to move: the perception of ideas being, as I con- 
ceive, to the soul, what motion is to the body, not its essence, but 
one of its operations.' 2 

Voltaire, commenting upon this subject, observes that he 
has 'the Honour to be as stupid in this Particular as Mr 
Locke'? Only thought at the conscious level was of 
course recognised at that time or for long afterwards. 
But, what was more startling, and gave Locke's critics 
occasion to blaspheme, was his permitting himself to 
wonder whether the ' I ', the thinking thing, must neces- 
sarily be an incorporeal substance. Undoubtedly matter 
could not of itself generate life and consciousness, but 
why may not God have imparted to 'some systems of 

1 Essay, iv. 9, sect. 3. 2 ibid., ii. 1, sect. 10. 3 op. cit., p. 99. 



278 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

matter, fitly disposed, a power to perceive and think?' 1 
It is no more inconceivable than what we all admit, that 
God has given matter the power to move. Locke has no 
desire, however, to prove the materiality of the soul. In- 
deed he considers it 'the more probable opinion' that the 
consciousness of personal identity is 'annexed to, and the 
affection of, one individual immaterial substance'. 2 He 
regards the question of the materiality or immateriality 
of the soul, a point so vital to the orthodox, with the same 
indifference as Milton felt towards the Ptolemaic and 
Copernican systems. We are simply not informed on 
this subject; 'it is a point which seems to me to be put 
out of the reach of our knowledge'. Locke quotes it 
merely as an example of the limited extent of human know- 
ledge: 'I say not this that I would any way lessen the 
belief of the soul's immateriality.' For him this dispute 
was unconnected with the really important question of 
the soul's immortality. Corporeal or incorporeal, the soul 
would meet with its appropriate reward or punishment in 
a future state; as Voltaire expresses it, * 'tis of little Im- 
portance to Religion, which only requires the Soul to 
be virtuous, what Substance it may be made of. 

B. The Existence of God? 

(i) Our knowledge of the existence of ' a God ' (Locke's 
use of the indefinite article seems significant) is, he holds, 
'the most obvious truth that reason discovers', its evid- 
ence being 'equal to mathematical certainty'. 'We more 
certainly know that there is a God than that there is any- 
thing else without us.' Locke's proof is not the same as 
Descartes's; indeed, he expressly states that he will not 
determine how far 'the idea of a most perfect being which 
a man may frame in his mind does or does not prove the 

1 Essay, iv. 3, sect. 6. - ibid., ii. 27, sect. 25. 

3 Cf. ibid., iv. 10. 



JOHN LOCKE — RELIGION 279 

existence of a God', adding that it is unwise, in his view, 
to depend exclusively upon this one type of argument. 1 But 
like Descartes he sets out from our certainty of our own 
existence. We know that we are ourselves something, and 
it is self-evident ('an intuitive certainty') that 'bare no- 
thing can no more produce any real being, than it can be 
equal to two right angles'. Further, as all the qualities 
of a thing produced must be present in the cause, an 
intelligent being alone could have produced us. Nonentity 
could not have generated matter, neither could matter 
have generated life, sense and intelligence unaided, al- 
though, as we have seen, God might have endowed it with 
these attributes. Similarly, arguing in the manner of the 
time from the 'order, harmony, and beauty, which is to 
be found in nature', Locke urges (quoting St Paul) that 
'the invisible things of God are clearly seen from the 
creation of the world, being understood by the things 
that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead'. 2 

Locke's Deity, in a word, is that of the contemporary 
reconcilers of science and religion, such as Glanvill or 
Boyle, and that of the eighteenth century as a whole — a 
Deity to be approached by demonstration, and whose 
existence, proclaimed by the spacious firmament on high, 
is as well attested as any proof in Euclid. This phase of 
religious thought, with which the term 'Deism' is often 
associated, was rendered possible largely by the complete- 
ness with which the findings of seventeenth century 
science, up to that date, could be made to fuse with the 
inherited religious certainties. Newton's Great Machine 
needed a Mechanic, and religion was prepared ahead with 
that which could serve this purpose. Everywhere what 
science had so far disclosed was nothing but 'order, har- 

1 Later he definitely rejected the ontological proof. (Cf. Pringle-Pattison, op. 
cit., p. 313, note.) 

2 Essay, iv. 10, sect. 7. 



28o THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

mony, and beauty' ; and finally the incomparable Newton 
had linked the infinitely great and the infinitely little in 
one inspired synthesis. The mighty maze was not with- 
out a plan, and Locke could declare with perfect candour 
that ' the works of nature in every part of them sufficiently 
evidence a Deity'. 1 Such a statement as this was then 
scientific as well as pious. Had not Newton conjectured 
that Absolute Space was constituted by God's omni- 
presence, and Time by his eternal duration ? and was not 
God still in a variety of other ways an indispensable hypo- 
thesis? In this way a belief like the belief in God, arising 
in reality from depths of time and consciousness un- 
dreamed of by this unhistorical and over-rational age, 
could be made to seem as if it rested entirely upon intel- 
lectual 'evidence'. The Cambridge Platonists, as we have 
seen, were great rationalisers of religious imagery, and 
strove to keep their understanding clear of the gross 
phantasms of the imagination. But if we compare, say, 
Smith's Discourses with the Reasonableness of Christianity, 
and still more if we compare them with Toland's Chris- 
tianity not Mysterious, the immediate offspring of Locke's 
book, we notice an immense difference in real content, a 
difference which can perhaps be expressed by simply say- 
ing that Smith's work is a contribution to religion and 
Locke's is not. I suggested above 2 that the Platonists, 
for all their 'modernism', did not contribute to the decline 
of religion which was undoubtedly taking place in the 
latter half of the century. They seem always to have 
grasped, what their deistic and scientific successors lost 
sight of, that religious belief is founded not upon 'evid- 
ence' but upon 'experience'. By insisting that God must 
be known, not by demonstration, but by spiritual sensa- 
tion, and by teaching that this experience is given only to 

1 Reasonableness of Christianity, Works (12th edition), vol. vi. p. 135. 
- Cf. p. 151. 



JOHN LOCKE — RELIGION 28 I 

purified and disciplined souls, Smith kept his modernism 
at once mystical and poetical. Locke admired Which- 
cote's sermons and was intimate with the family of 
Cudworth; he is connected by many a thread, both intel- 
lectual and personal, with the Latitudinarians. But when 
we turn from Smith or Whichcote to Locke's writings on 
religion, we feel that we have left both religion and poetry 
behind, and entered wholly into the 'cooler element of 
prose'. It is noticeable that Locke habitually speaks of 
mathematical certainty as the perfect type of the certainHes 
reached by demonstration ; and the highest testimonial he 
can give to a religious belief is that it has the same degree 
of evidence as a geometrical proof. It was this belief in the 
unique claims of mathematics, shared by him with Hobbes 
and the Cartesians, which led Locke to believe that 
morality, which he took to be 'the proper science and 
business of mankind in general ', was capable of mathe- 
matical demonstration. 1 

(ii) Revelation and Reason. 

Locke certainly conceived himself to be, at least as far 
as beliefs were concerned, a devout and orthodox Chris- 
tian; and we must now enquire a little into his views on 
the subject of Revealed Religion. It must be clearly 
grasped that Locke did not base the whole of religious 
belief upon demonstration. For him, as fully as for 
Milton or for Stillingfleet, it was an unquestioned fact 
that a 'positive revelation' had been communicated by 
God in addition to the light of reason. What was the 
relation, in his view, between the deliverances of revelation 
and those of reason ? 

'The bare testimony of revelation', he writes, 'is the 
highest certainty . . . whether the thing proposed agree 
or disagree with common experience and the ordinary 

1 Essay, iv. 12, t^ct. n, and iv. 3, sect. 18. 



282 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

course of things or no,' * because in this case the testimony 
is that of God himself. Faith, then, is definable as 'assent 
to revelation'. Only, he adds significantly, 

'we must be sure that it be a divine revelation, and that we 
understand it right': 

and this brings us back immediately to the office of 
Reason in religion. 

'Whatever God hath revealed is certainly true; no doubt can 
be made of it. This is the proper object of faith : but whether it 
be a divine revelation or no, reason must judge? 2 

Reason itself he calls 'natural revelation', whereby God 
communicates to us as much truth as lies within the reach 
of our natural faculties. Revelation is 

'natural reason enlarged by a new set of discoveries communi- 
cated by God immediately, which reason vouches the truth of, 
by the testimony and proofs it gives that they come from God.' 3 

Locke, like a true son of his age, is so convinced that 
'Reason must be our last judge and guide in every- 
thing', 4 that he writes sometimes as if revelation were, 
by comparison, untrustworthy or superfluous. For in- 
stance, if God by revelation proclaimed the truth of a 
proposition in Euclid, our certainty that this revelation 
really came from God could never be so absolute as our 
certainty of the truth of the proposition by reason. By 
the same principle, 

'no proposition can be received for divine revelation, or obtain 
the assent due to such, if it be contrary to our clear intuitive 
knowledge.' 5 

In other words, we do not need revelation to tell us what 
we already know, and when it contradicts what we know 

1 ibid., iv. i6, sect. 14. * ibid., iv. 18, sect. 4. 

3 ibid., iv. 19, sect. 4. 4 ibid., sect. 14. 

5 ibid., iv. 18, sects 4-1 1. 



JOHN LOCKE — RELIGION 283 

we must reject it. It seems clear, however, that these 
arguments are not directed against believing the Scrip- 
tures to be of divine origin, for this Locke repeatedly 
affirms. He is aiming rather at superstition (including, 
and mainly consisting of, the special doctrines of Popery) 
and at enthusiasm, or the pseudo-revelations of the 
Protestant fanatics. Reason must judge, for instance, 
that transubstantiation is not a truth proceeding from 
God, and that the 'illuminations' of the sectaries are but 
'the ungrounded fancies of a man's own brain'. But 
Locke does not think it necessary to show cause why he 
or any one should believe the Scriptures to be 'from God'. 
This was a traditional certainty too deeply rooted for 
Locke to question. But he could and did question other 
men's interpretations of Scripture, and in the Reasonable- 
ness of Christianity he undertook to show what it was, in 
his opinion, that the Gospels did reveal to us. 

Locke's main object in writing this treatise 1 seems to 
have been to show how few and how simple were the 
credal demands made upon us by Christianity, and how 
consonant with 'natural revelation' were its moral injunc- 
tions. In a sense the treatise is an enquiry into the cre- 
dentials of Christian doctrine, and a proof of its divine 
origin from its reasonableness. He postulates at the out- 
set that the Bible is 

'a collection of writings, designed by God, for the instruction of 
the illiterate bulk of mankind, in the way to salvation', 2 

and that consequently in all 'necessary points' it is to be 
understood 'in the plain direct meaning of its words and 
phrases'. Now the Christian doctrine of redemption, and 
therefore the Gospel, is founded upon 'the supposition 
of Adam's fall '.. What did Adam lose, and to what does 
Christ restore us? Locke's reply is, in brief, that Adam 

1 It was published in 1695. 2 Reasonableness, Works, vol. vi. p. 5. 



284 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

lost bliss and immortality. Adam bequeathed to his pos- 
terity, not the dire fate of necessarily sinning in every 
action of their lives, as alleged by some theologians, but 
simply mortality, and exposure to the toils and sufferings 
of earthly life. And as in Adam all die, so the mission of 
Christ, the second Adam (whose miraculous birth consti- 
tutes him, like Adam, in a special sense the Son of God), 
is to 'bring life and immortality to light'. To those who 
believe in him Christ restores what Adam lost, not here 
and now, but in the Kingdom of Heaven after the Resur- 
rection. In order to attain this salvation only two things 
are necessary: first, to believe that Jesus really was the 
Messiah, the Christ sent by God for our redemption ; and 
secondly, to repent and live thenceforth a righteous life. 
The first and greater part of Locke's argument is devoted 
to showing that this was in fact what Jesus expected of 
his own followers, and commanded them to preach after 
his death. The miracles, teachings and actions of Jesus 
were designed to prove that he was the Messiah, while 
giving no occasion to the Jews or to the Roman govern- 
ment for suspecting him of plotting a political uprising. 
No other belief than this was required by Christ himself 
or his apostles as necessary for justification. But it was 
further required that believers should bring forth fruits 
meet for repentance; and Locke therefore proceeds to 
show that, in his teaching, Jesus Christ confirmed the 
moral laws which reason had already discovered, clarified 
them from the corrupt glosses of scribes and pharisees, 
and commanded certain new ones. 

'There is not, I think, any one of the duties of morality, which 
he has not, somewhere or other, by himself and his apostles, in- 
culcated over and over again to his followers in express terms.' x 

Than these simple requirements, Locke constantly im- 

1 ibid., p. 122. 



JOHN LOCKE — RELIGION 285 

plies, what could be more 'reasonable'? Yet certain 
objections had to be met, and with a brief account of 
Locke's treatment of these I will conclude my summary. 
First there was the old question — what of the worthies of 
Old Testament times who, however well they may have 
kept the law, ceremonial and moral, could not have had 
the saving faith ? Locke disposes of this easily — all that 
was expected of them, and necessary for their justification, 
was that they should trust in God's promise to send the 
Messiah. Was not Abraham's faith in God's promises 
counted to him for righteousness ? But there is the more 
weighty objection still to be raised — what shall become 
of the rest of mankind, who never heard of Christ at all ? 
In the charity of his heart, and in the strength of his 
confidence in Reason as the 'candle of the Lord', 1 Locke 
allows himself such latitude when answering this objec- 
tion, that he almost gives away the case for Christianity. 
The light of nature, he says, revealed to the Gentiles the 
main articles of the moral law, and 

'the same spark of the divine nature and knowledge in man, 
which making him a man, showed him the law he was under, as 
a man, showed him also the way of atoning the merciful, kind, 
compassionate Author and Father of him and his being, when he 
had transgressed that law.' 2 

The Gentiles, then, may be safely left 'to stand and fall 
to their own Father and Master, whose goodness and 
mercy is over all his works'. 

But having admitted so much, Locke cannot now avoid 
the further question : What need was there, then, of the 
Christian scheme of redemption? Locke's replies to this 
question are illuminating, for this was no mere rhetorical 
objection set up in the course of argument simply to be 
overturned. It was the main problem confronting Chris- 

1 Locke several times quotes this favourite text of Whichcote's. 

2 ibid., p. 133. 



286 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

tian apologists in Locke's day and for many years follow- 
ing. Where nature and reason supply us with such clear 
evidence, what need have we of revelation? Locke's 
reply, made in perfect good faith and, I think, quite with- 
out the cynicism of a Voltaire, a Hume or a Gibbon, was 
that although for the wise and the virtuous nature and 
reason 'sufficiently evidence a deity', natural religion 'had 
never authority enough to prevail on the multitude ', and 
a special revelational sanction was therefore required, 
which should be 'suited to vulgar capacities'. Not only 
vice and ignorance had prevented the voice of reason from 
being heard by the 'illiterate bulk of mankind', but also 
the craft of priests, who, 'to secure their empire', had 
everywhere 'excluded reason from having anything to 
do in religion'. We may infer from Locke's tone here 
that in his opinion this priestly activity had not been con- 
fined to the period before the appearance of Christ. But 
Locke claims a wider necessity for revelation. Although, 
as we have seen, he surmised that morality might turn out 
some day to be mathematically demonstrable, he admitted 
that it had hitherto proved 'too hard a task for unassisted 
reason to establish morality in all its parts'. 

'Experience shows, that the knowledge of morality, by mere 
natural light (how agreeable soever it be to it) makes but a slow 
progress, and little advance in the world.' * 

It was necessary that the divine imprimatur should be 
stamped upon the laws of reason, and this Christ effected. 
Further, the Christian revelation teaches certain important 
truths which unaided reason could never have reached, in 
particular the doctrine of a future life. True, the heathens 
had had their dim conjectures about such a possibility; 
they had had the names of 'Styx and Acheron, of Elysian 
fields and seats of the blessed', but these were mere fables. 

1 For all this discussion cf. ibid., pp. 134-58. 



JOHN LOCKE — RELIGION 287 

''more like the inventions of wit , and ornaments of poetry, than the 
serious persuasions of the wise and sober.' x 

That virtue is her own reward is therefore 'not all that 
can now be said of her'. 

In this way Locke managed to fit 'Revelation' on to 
his philosophic world-scheme. However disastrously 
Popery had re-paganised Christianity with its ceremonies 
and its sacerdotalism, however wildly the enthusiasts 
might rear their baseless fabrics, it was still possible, thank 
Heaven, for an Englishman and a philosopher to hold a 
sober and rational faith. Bishops might raise a suspicious 
eyebrow at the credal tenuity of Locke's Christianity; and 
Toland's Christianity Not Mysterious? appearing so soon 
after Locke's treatise, and so evidently inspired by it, 
might indicate the direction in which his influence would 
afterwards move. To us, however, Locke's religious 
writings are of interest because in them is revealed, with 
unusual clarity, the nature of the compromise reached at 
the close of our period between traditional beliefs and the 
new philosophy. Locke's solution here, as in most depart- 
ments of thought, served the eighteenth century as a 
veritable Act of Settlement. 

C. The Existence of Other Things. 

As we have seen, the existence of a real external world, 
though not intuitively or demonstratively known, was as 
certain to Locke as 'our happiness and misery'. He 
never allowed himself, as Berkeley afterwards did, to 
accept the whole implication of his own statement that 
the mind has 'no other immediate object but its own 
ideas'. No other immediate object, perhaps, but in 
Locke's view no reasonable man could doubt that our 

1 ibid., p. 149. The implied estimate of ' poetry ' is significant (cf. below, 
pp. 290 ff.). 

2 1696. 



288 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

knowledge 'goes a little farther than bare imagination'; 
there is 'something farther intended*. The mind indeed 
'knows not things immediately, but only by the inter- 
vention of the ideas it has of them'; yet our ideas must 
point to something real if we are to preserve the distinc- 
tion — surely a valid distinction? — between the 'visions 
of an enthusiast ' and the ' reasonings of a sober man ' . Our 
knowledge is 'real', Locke teaches, when there is 'a con- 
formity between our ideas and the reality of things'. But 
what, he very properly asks, ' shall here be our criterion ? 
How shall the mind, when it perceives nothing but its 
own ideas, know that they agree with things themselves?' 1 
Locke's reply is an appeal to the principle of our passivity 
in sensation : 

'The eye — it cannot choose but see; 
We cannot bid the ear be still; 
Our bodies feel, where'er they be, 
Against or with our will.' 2 

As everybody knows, Locke believed the human mind 
to begin its career as a sheet of 'white paper, void of all 
characters, without any ideas'. 3 Whence, then, come the 
simple ideas which soon get inscribed upon it, and are 
afterwards elaborated, together with the ideas of reflection, 
into all the complexity of our mature knowledge? The 
facts, he holds, force upon us the belief that there are 
powers which of themselves our minds impress. These 
powers are the attributes or qualities of matter, the real 
substance of which the physical world is composed. 'In 
bare, naked perception the mind is, for the most part, 
merely passive,' 4 Locke repeatedly insists. Our simple 
ideas therefore attest the existence of a real substance with 
power to produce them in us. As to what this substance 

1 The phrases quoted are from the Essay, bk. iv. 4. 

2 Wordsworth's Expostulation and Reply. 

3 Essay, bk. ii. 1, sect. 2. 

4 ibid., bk. ii. 9, sect. 1. 



JOHN LOCKE 289 

is, Locke expresses the frankest agnosticism. Neither 
sensation nor reflection, which Locke has told us are the 
only sources of our ideas, give us any idea of 'substance', 
and we therefore have no conception of it. It is merely 
the something, 'we know not what', 1 which underlies or 
supports the sensible qualities of things; the 'supposed, 
but unknown, support of those qualities we find exist- 
ing'; 2 the 'something besides' the extension, figure, 
solidity and motion of sensible things. Similarly, 'spirit' 
is the substratum underlying the operations of the mind. 
But whereas of spirit we are intuitively certain, of matter 
we merely 'suppose' the reality. 

Actually Locke was confirmed in this somewhat para- 
doxical certainty by the fact that he habitually pictured 
matter in his mind, according to the prevalent 'corpuscu- 
larian ' theory, as a collection of invisible atoms varying in 
their figure and motion. This to him, as to Hobbes, 
Descartes, and the Cartesians, was the real world; and 
when he pondered the phenomena of sensation it was 
always this that he visualised as acting upon our senses. 
This consideration helps also to explain his belief in the 
reality of our ideas of the 'primary qualities' of things, by 
which he understood the qualities just mentioned : exten- 
sion, figure, solidity and mobility. Because the real world 
was made up, for him, of bodies to which only these 
mathematical qualities could with certainty be attributed, 
our ideas of these qualities seemed to him to have a degree 
of reality denied to our ideas of 'secondary' qualities. 
They were 'resemblances' of 'the thing as it is in itself, 
whereas the ideas of secondary qualities (colour, sound, 
temperature, etc.) were merely the mental picturings set 
up in us by the varying bulk, figure and texture of the 
minute parts of the object. In all our ideas of 'things', 
then, there is a strange mingling of ignorance, reality and 

1 ibid., bk. i. 4, sect. 19. 2 ibid., bk. ii. 23, sect. 2. 



290 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

fancy. We are ignorant of the supporting substance, but 
our ideas of objects, when stripped of subjective accre- 
tions, and reduced to their mathematical skeletons, are 
resemblances of real or primary qualities in the objects. 
The other ingredients in our ideas of objects — such as 
round, red, cold, smooth and the like — are the mind's 
reaction to certain ' powers ' in the material particles of the 
object, and are therefore not resemblances of real things. 
What is real in every case is some primary quality, some 
feature in the configuration or motion of the material 
particles, which our mind registers as a 'secondary' 
quality. Locke more than once assures us that if we pos- 
sessed an ultra-microscopic eye, such as perhaps the 
angels have, we should then have a direct view of the 
inner constitution of things, and should perceive, in all 
their nakedness, the shapes and the movements which now 
masquerade in our imaginations as colours and sounds, 
tastes and smells. But, like Swift, Locke reflects that 
perhaps it behoves us to be content with beautiful sur- 
faces, and not hanker after a direct gaze into this alleged 
real world of jostling geometrical shapes. Our faculties 
are suited to our state, he concludes (in a passage sugges- 
tive of the Essay on Man *); we must rest satisfied with the 
assurance that all we know on earth is all we need to know, 
and that our ideas of 'Other Things', if inadequate, are 
such as an all-wise Contriver has fitted our faculties to 
receive. Thus, as usual, Locke gives his speculations a 
happy ending, and like an indulgent schoolmaster allows 
us the reward, after the toil of following his lessons, of 
running out and playing unconcernedly again in the open 
air of common sense. 

Locke and Poetry. 

Lastly, it remains to be asked, what, if anything, did 

1 Essay, bk. ii. 23, sects. 11 and 12. 



JOHN LOCKE — POETRY 29 1 

this influential philosophy mean for poetry? Most of us 
to-day consider the arts to hold something of a central 
position amongst the activities of human existence, and it 
is hardly to be supposed that a system of thought which 
affected the outlook of several generations can have had 
no relevance whatever for poetry. Locke himself seems 
to have taken no interest in art, and the few references he 
makes to poetry are of a disparaging kind. This fact 
alone is significant, and suggests part of the answer to our 
question. Philosophers of earlier and of later ages, par- 
ticularly those of the nineteenth century, have thought 
it necessary to find a place in their systems for the 'imagin- 
ative ' way of approaching truth, and some have given it 
the very highest credentials. But seventeenth century 
philosophers as a whole, and Locke above all, did not feel 
this necessity. It has been one of the main purposes of 
this book to show how inevitably the whole philosophic 
movement of the century told against poetry, and I need 
not repeat here what has already been said on this sub- 
ject. Locke summed up in his work the doctrines and 
assumptions of the seventeenth century, and his great 
influence imposed them bodily upon the eighteenth as 
unquestionable truths. That the things which were most 
real to Locke — his metaphysically-certified God, his 
outer world of geometrical atoms, and his inner world 
of mathematical ideas — were not the realities of poetry, 
will perhaps be generally allowed, suspicious though we 
rightly are of all romantic presuppositions about what is 
poetic. Locke's philosophy is the philosophy of an age 
whose whole effort had been to arrive at 'truth' by exor- 
cising the phantasms of the imagination, and the truth- 
standards which the eighteenth century inherited through 
him involved the relegation of the mind's shaping-power 
to an inferior status. What Locke himself thought of 
'the imagination', and of 'poetry', as he understood these 



292 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

terms, can be illustrated from his remarks on 'wit' and 
'judgment'. The mind, though passive in perception, 
becomes active in all the subsequent processes of reflec- 
tion, which include compounding, comparing, and ab- 
stracting from the ideas that sensation has impressed 
upon it. Our complex ideas so formed are 'real' when 
they correspond to an actual state of affairs in the 'real' 
world ; or again, they are real if they are mathematical, 
that is to say, if they are wholly the 'workmanship of the 
mind', and are thus exempted, by their abstract nature, 
from having any reference to external 'things'. Other 
mental compounds are 'fantastic', 'chimerical' fictions 
of our fancies. These may indeed be allowed for pur- 
poses of pleasure, but no philosopher can regard them 
as having any serious importance. 'Wit', for Locke, 
as for Hobbes and Dryden, consists in a certain 'quick- 
ness of parts', whereby the contents of memory — the 
storehouse of impressions — are readily available when 
needed. Men who have 'a great deal of wit and prompt 
memories', however, are not usually distinguished for 
the 'clearest judgment' or 'deepest reason'. For wit 
consists in a facility for assembling or combining any 
ideas which may seem to have some congruity with each 
other, 

''thereby to make up pleasant pictures and agreeable visions in the 
fancy. .' x 

Wit is completely irresponsible, concerning itself not a 
jot with the 'truth' or 'reality' of its conceits. Judgment, 
on the other hand, proceeds by a method exactly contrary 
— by the method, in fact, which it is Locke's whole pur- 
pose to recommend. It carefully distinguishes one idea 
from another, wherever the least difference is discernible, 
so as to avoid being 'misled by similitude' into mistak- 

1 Essay, bk. ii. 11, sect. 3 (my italics). 



JOHN LOCKE — POETRY 293 

ing one thing for another. Locke emphasises the radical 
opposition between this method and that of 'wit'; it is 
evidently a matter of importance to him to 'place' poetry 
as unambiguously as he can : 

'This is a way of proceeding quite contrary to metaphor and 
allusion, wherein for the most part lies that entertainment and 
pleasantry of wit which strikes so lively on the fancy, and there- 
fore so acceptable to all people, because its beauty appears at first 
sight, and there is required no labour of thought to examine what 
truth or reason there is in it." 1 1 

The mind is content to be amused with 'the agreeableness 
of the picture', and the 'gaiety of the fancy'; its pleasure 
would be spoiled by the application of the 'severe rules 
of truth and good reason, whereby it appears that it consists 
in something that is not perfectly conformable to them 1 . 2 And 
for what was not conformable to ' truth and good reason ' 
Locke could not be expected to have a very high regard. 
We get a glimpse of his true feelings about poetry in his 
Thoughts Concerning Education, where he declares that if 
a child has a poetic vein, the parents, so far from cherish- 
ing it, 'should labour to have it stifled and suppressed as 
much as may be'. The air of Parnassus may be pleasant, 
but its soil is barren. 3 

Thus do all charms fly 'at the touch of cold philo- 
sophy'. 4 I do not wish to suggest, however, that the 
ascendancy of Locke, or the wide acceptance of his stand- 
ards of truth, made every sort of poetry impossible. We 
of this generation have less cause than our predecessors 
to undervalue the poetic output of the eighteenth century. 
Conformity to truth and good reason is never a wholly 

1 ibid. 2 ibid. 

3 Locke is here urging the drawbacks of poetry as a career. [Cf. " Poetry 
and gaming, which usually go together, are alike in this too, that they seldom 
bring any advantage, but to those who have nothing else to live on.' Works, 
vol. viii. p. 167.] But the implications remain. 

4 Cf. Keats' Lamia. 



294 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

bad principle, even for poets; and we owe to it much 
first-rate satire, as well as a work like the Essay on Man. 
What the cold philosophy did destroy was the union of 
heart and head, the synthesis of thought and feeling, 
out of which major poetry seems to be born. There 
were, it is true, elements in Locke's oddly-composite 
system which later proved of unexpected service to poetry. 
The doctrine which derived all our knowledge from the 
senses was capable of serving Wordsworth, who imbibed 
it through Hartley, as a philosophic sanction for his own 
most deep-rooted instincts, and furnished him with at 
least a foundation for his conscious poetic theory. Words- 
worth was working in the spirit and tradition of Locke 
when he rejected gaudy and inane phraseology and 
devoted his powers to the task of making verse 'deal 
boldly with substantial things'. And in a sense, more- 
over, Locke's 'new way of knowing by ideas', his insist- 
ence that all we can contemplate is mind-stuff, contained 
the implication (though Locke would not have welcomed 
it) that 'mind is incorrigibly poetical'. 1 But all this could 
as yet mean to the average intelligent man of letters is 
illustrated by Addison in one of his papers on ' Chearful- 
ness'. 2 Concerned, as always, to put a favourable inter- 
pretation upon everything, Addison finds in the limi- 
tation of our knowledge to 'ideas' a source of satisfaction 
rather than of humiliation. If the material world, he says, 
had appeared to us 'endow'd only with those real Qualities 
which it actually possesses, it would have made but a very 
joyless and uncomfortable Figure '. A kindly Providence, 
therefore, has given matter the power of producing in us 
a whole series of delightful 'imaginary' qualities, to the end 
that man might 'have his Mind cheared and delighted 
with agreeable Sensations'. In indulging in the Pleasures 

1 Santayana, Fi<ue Essays (1933), p. 22. 

2 Spectator, No. 387. (The italics in the ensuing quotations are mine.) 



JOHN LOCKE — POETRY 295 

of the Imagination, therefore, we are doing something 
not unworthy of a rational being, and something, more- 
over, which has the approval of Heaven. 

But, of course, much more than this was required 
before there could arise a theory of the imagination ade- 
quate to the dignity of poetry, and much had to be added 
to Locke's sensationalism before it could be pressed into 
the service of the creative power. Above all, there was 
required the conviction that the 'inanimate cold world' 
of the mechanical philosophy was not the whole reality, 
that there was a closer bond between the mind and nature 
than the old dualism could conceive, and that 'Truth' 
was not given to the naked Reason, but was constituted, 
in moments of impassioned vigilance, by the whole soul 
of man 

'Working but in alliance with the works 
Which it beholds.' 



CHAPTER XII 

POSTSCRIPT 

On Wordsworth and the Locke Tradition 



THE manner in which the triumph of the me- 
chanical philosophy affected poetry can be illus- 
trated, I think, by comparing a representative 
serious poem of the earlier eighteenth century, Pope's 
Essay on Man, with Paradise Lost as representing the 
previous century. It has been pointed out that there is 
no Satan in Pope's poem. From one standpoint this 
fact merely exemplifies Pope's optimistic 'philosophy'. 
With the characteristic desire of his time to explain, and 
to explain favourably, Pope unquestioningly makes his 
poem a theodicy, a vindication of an order of things in 
which evil appears, but only appears, to exist. To 'ex- 
plain' evil is almost necessarily to explain it away. But 
taking a more general view, one is struck by the absence, 
in Pope's poem, of any sort of mythological machinery. 
In giving pointed expression to the real beliefs of his time, 
Pope instinctively adopts an explanatory method. Itwould 
have been unthinkable in Pope's time that a serious poet 
should have used any such machinery, or even an alle- 
gorical convention, for such a purpose. Mythologies, 
including the Christian, were now felt to be exploded; 
what may have been 'true' in them is that part which can 
be conceptually or intellectually stated. Milton, as we 
have seen, although himself a considerable rationaliser, 
could still employ the concrete symbols of the faith with- 
out feeling that he was deliberately utilising what was 
fictitious. God and Satan were real beings to him, as well 
as 'principles'. But though Pope and his contemporaries 

296 



WORDSWORTH AND THE LOCKE TRADITION 297 

were debarred by their intellectual climate from using any 
great system of commonly-accepted symbols, as Dante 
and Milton could, they could still employ mythological 
material for other purposes, as Pope did in the Rape of the 
Lock, for example. They could use it consciously, for 
technical convenience and for purposes of 'delight'. It is 
in this manner that the mythologies of the ancient world 
are generally used by eighteenth century poets. These 
poets employ their personifications and their other mytho- 
logical apparatus in full awareness that they are 'fiction'. 
They are 'fictions' of proved evocative power and of long 
association with poetic experience, and they can thus still 
be made use of to assist in producing poetry out of the 
dead-matter of modernity. But fictions they are still felt 
to be, and they cannot therefore be used with full convic- 
tion. Their employment involves the deliberate exploita- 
tion of obsolete modes of feeling, a conscious disregard of 
contemporary truth-standards. It was, one may suppose, 
his sense of this situation which made Johnson dislike 
Lycidas and Gray's Odes. 

As a consequence of these developments it was inevit- 
able that when a major poet again appeared he should be 
'left alone, seeking the visible world '. No existing myth- 
ology could express the 'real', as the 'real' was now felt 
to be. A final effort had been made, by Erasmus Darwin, 
to enlist poetry under the banner of science by describing 
the Loves of the Plants with all the apparatus of 'poetical 
machinery', but of this unholy alliance it would be hard 
to say whether it was more degrading to science or to 
poetry. The new poet must therefore either make poetry 
out of the direct dealings of his mind and heart with the 
visible universe, or he must fabricate a genuine new mytho- 
logy of his own (not necessarily rejecting all old material 
in so doing). Keats and Shelley often follow the second of 
these methods; Wordsworth typically follows the first. 



298 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

Wordsworth's relation to the 'scientific' tradition is not 
quite simple. In a sense he is in violent reaction against 
it, and yet it conditioned much of his poetic experience. 
What he owed to it was his instinctive repudiation of any- 
concrete mythology. His poetry was 'scientific' in that 
his interest lay in the free relations between the mind of 
man and the universe to which, he believes, it is 'so 
exquisitely fitted'. According to him, we 'build up the 
being that we are' by 'deeply drinking-in the soul of 
things'. That is, there must be no abstractions, no 
symbols, no myths, to stand between the mind and its true 
object. In so far as it was the abstract world-picture (the 
world as 'machine') of the seventeenth century natural 
philosophers which had exploded the mythologies, Words- 
worth may be said to have owed to them (as well as to his 
own temperament) his root-assumption that truth could 
only be achieved by 'making verse deal boldly with sub- 
stantial things'. Wordsworth was the kind of poet who 
could only have appeared at the end of the eighteenth 
century, when mythologies were exploded, and a belief 
in the visible universe as the body of which God was the 
soul alone remained. In this sense his beliefs can be 
viewed as data furnished to him by a tradition; in this 
sense he, as well as Dante, may be said to have employed 
his sensibility within a framework of received beliefs. But 
his debt to tradition, unlike Dante's, was a negative one; 
he owed to it his deprivation of mythology, his aloneness 
with the universe. His more positive beliefs, those by 
which he appears in reaction against the scientific tradi- 
tion, were built up by him out of his own poetic experi- 
ences, and it is this which makes him representative of the 
modern situation — the situation in which beliefs are made 
out of poetry rather than poetry out of beliefs. To 
animise the 'real' world, the 'universe of death' that the 
'mechanical' system of philosophy had produced, but to 



WORDSWORTH AND THE LOCKE TRADITION 299 

do so without either using an exploded mythology or 
fabricating a new one, this was the special task and 
mission of Wordsworth. Wordsworth's conviction that 
the human mind was capable of this task was the most 
important of his 'positive' beliefs, and this belief he owed 
chiefly to his own experiences. It is this which distin- 
guishes his 'deism' from that of, for instance, Thomson's 
Seasons, to which it bears an obvious superficial resem- 
blance. For Thomson, as for Pope, mythologies were 
almost as 'unreal' as for Wordsworth, but their positive 
belief, their Deism (in so far as they genuinely held it), 
was 'intellectually' held, and it consequently appears in 
poetry mainly as rhetoric. The poetry exists to decorate, 
to render agreeable, a set of abstract notions; and these 
abstractions have been taken over, as truth, from the 
natural philosophers — from Descartes, Newton, Locke, 
or Leibnitz. Wordsworth's beliefs, on the other hand, 
were largely the formulation of his own dealings with 
'substantial things'; they were held intellectually only 
because they had first been 'proved upon the pulses'. 
That the result of his 'dealings' was not a Divine Comedy 
or a Paradise Lost was due, we may say, to the scientific 
movement and the sensationalist philosophy of Locke and 
Hartley; that the result was not an Essay on Man, a 
Seasons, or a Botanic Garden was due to himself. For it 
was the 'visible world', no abstract machine, that Words- 
worth sought; and he felt that mechanical materialism 
had substituted a 'universe of death for that which moves 
with light and life instinct, actual, divine, and true'. 1 
The belief that Wordsworth constructed out of his experi- 
ences was a belief in the capacity of the mind to co-operate 
with this 'active universe', to contribute something of its 
own to it in perceiving it, and not, as sensationalism 
taught, merely to receive, passively, impressions from 

1 Prelude, xiv. 160. 



300 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

without. It was this belief, or the experiences upon 
which the belief was based, which encouraged him to 
hope that poetry might be delivered from the fetters of 
the mechanical tradition without being allowed to fall into 
disrepute as 'unreal' or 'fanciful'. 

Of this belief, as intellectually formulated, there are 
many explicit statements in Wordsworth's poetry, espe- 
cially in the Prelude, as well as in his prose. There is, for 
example, the passage on the child (the 'inmate of this 
active universe'): 

'For feeling has to him imparted power 
That through the growing faculties of sense 
Doth like an agent of the one great Mind 
Create, creator and receiver both, 
Working but in alliance with the works 
Which it beholds.' 1 

In a later passage of the same Book he distinguishes the 
true creative power from arbitrary fancy : 

'A plastic power 
Abode with me, a forming hand, at times 
Rebellious, acting in a devious mood, 
A local spirit of his own, at war 
With general tendency, but, for the most, 
Subservient strictly to external things 
With which it communed.' 2 

The classic 'locus' is in the Preface to the Excursion, 
where in deliberately Miltonic language he has been 
claiming more than epic dignity for his own subject- 
matter): 3 

'Paradise, and groves 

Elysian, Fortunate Fields — why should they be 

A history only of departed things, 

Or a mere fiction of what never was? 

For the discerning intellect of Man, 

1 Prelude, ii. 254. 2 Ibid., 362. 

3 The italics are mine. 



WORDSWORTH AND THE LOCKE TRADITION 301 

When wedded to this goodly universe 
In love and holy passion, shall find these 
A simple produce of the common day. 
— I, long before the blissful hour arrives, 
Would chant in lonely peace the spousal verse 
Of this great consummation: — and, by words 
Which speak of nothing more than what we are y 
Would I arouse the sensual from their sleep 
Of Death, and win the vacant and the vain 
To noble raptures; while my voice proclaims 
How exquisitely the individual Mind 

to the external World 
Is fitted, and how exquisitely too — 
Theme this but little heard of among men — 
The external World is fitted to the Mind; 
And the Creation (by no lower name 
Can it be called) which they with blended might 
Accomplish.'' 

The famous 'Fancy-Imagination* distinction of Words- 
worth and Coleridge, and their followers, may best be 
understood as arising from the existence in them of the 
particular 'belief-state' I have tried to indicate. The 
fact-world of modern scientific consciousness was the 
primary datum. In this 'inanimate cold world' 'objects, 
as objects, are essentially fixed and dead'. 1 But just as a 
'known and familiar landscape' may be transmuted by 
moonlight or 'accidents of light and shade', 2 so, owing to 
the bond between nature and the soul of man, this dead 
world may be brought to life by the modifying colours of 
the 'imagination'. Of the imagination, for this is the 
faculty which works the required magic without pro- 
ducing what is now felt to be 'fictitious'. Where there is 
consciousness of fiction, it is the fancy that has been at 
work. The test of the 'imaginative', as distinct from the 
'imaginary', is that external objects shall have been 

1 Coleridge, Biog. Lit., ch. xiii. (vol i. p. 202 in Shawcross). 

2 Phrases from the opening of ch. xiv. of Biog. Lit. 



302 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

coloured by the poet's own mood, or made the symbol of 
it; that the plastic power shall have been exercised, but 
kept 'subservient strictly to external things'. Modifica- 
tions so wrought, values so ascribed to the fact-world, have 
a reality-status which is unassailable, because they are 
psychological in origin; they spring, that is, from states 
of mind, of which the 'reality' cannot be questioned. 

Wordsworth's belief in the possibility of this creation 
which the mind and the universe may 'with blended 
might accomplish' was, I have suggested, largely built up 
out of his own poetic experience. One need only con- 
sider a number of passages in which Wordsworth has 
commemorated those of his experiences which he felt to 
be most significant, to see that they are generally occasions 
on which he had (for the most part unconsciously at the 
time) exerted the 'visionary', the 'plastic' power upon 
some external object. In the celebrated 'spots of time' 
passage at the end of Book xn. of the Prelude, 1 he says 
explicitly that of all the recollections which hold for him a 
'renovating virtue', he values most those which record 
moments of the greatest self-activity, those which 'give 
knowledge to what point, and how, the mind is lord and 
master, outward sense the obedient servant of her will ' ; 
recollections, that is, which show the mind 'not prostrate, 
overborne, as if the mind herself were nothing, a mere 
pensioner on outward forms — ' (as in sensationalist philo- 
sophy), but in its native dignity, creating significance in 
alliance with external things. It is unfortunately true that 
Wordsworth frequently discusses his experiences, and 
states the results which his intellect has extracted from 
them, instead of communicating them to us. The modern 
reader demands the experience, and cares little or nothing 
what metaphysical or psychological principle they are sup- 
posed to exemplify. This criticism is perhaps applicable 

1 Lines 208-286. 



WORDSWORTH AND THE LOCKE TRADITION 303 

to the passage in Book xn. to which I have referred, for 
Wordsworth there avows his inability to communicate the 
'visionary dreariness' which then invested the moor, the 
lonely pool, and the woman with the pitcher, although the 
knowledge that his imagination had been strong enough 
to impart the visionary quality to the scene was his reason 
for valuing the recollection. But he has given enough 
examples of his sensibility in action for us to see that its 
workings were independent of, and antecedent to, the 
formulation of the belief. When (to take a few illustra- 
tions at random) : 

' a gentle shock of mild surprise 
Has carried far into his heart the voice 
Of mountain torrent;' *■ 

when he saw the Leech-Gatherer pace 

'About the weary moors continually, 
Wandering about alone and silently'; 2 

when the Highland woman's greeting seemed 

'a sound 
Of something without place or bound;' 3 
when 

'the high spear-grass on that wall 
By mist and silent rain-drops silvered o'er, 
As once I passed, into my heart conveyed 
So still an image of tranquillity, 
So calm and still, and looked so beautiful 
Among the uneasy thoughts which filled my mind,' * 

these experiences, and many another that could be col- 
lected from his best poetry, depended upon no special 
beliefs (and of course no beliefs are needed by the reader 
in order to share them to the full). It was out of the repeti- 
tion of these imaginative moments that the belief arose; 

1 Prelude, v. 382. - Resolution and Independence, stanza xix. 

3 Stepping Westward, verse 2. 4 Excursion, i. 943. 



304 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

the belief itself was the intellectual formulation of what 
they seemed to mean. It must be recognised, neverthe- 
less, that the formulation, once made (no doubt with 
Coleridge's assistance), gave added importance to the 
recollected 'moments', the 'spots of time', and that 
Wordsworth would probably not have conducted his 
recherche du temps perdu with such eagerness and such con- 
viction if he had not so formulated it. 



Wordsworth's poetic activity, then, was largely con- 
ditioned by the 'reality-standards' of his time, which left 
him alone with the visible universe. But his 'creative 
sensibility' had taught him that he was not alone with an 
'inanimate cold world', but with an 'active universe', a 
universe capable of being moulded and modified by the 
'plastic power' which abode within himself. As long as 
he could be a poet, this belief in the bond between man 
and nature was valid. Poetry becomes, with Words- 
worth, the record of moments of 'ennobling interchange 
of action from within and from without'; 1 it takes on, in 
fine, a psychological aspect. ' There is scarcely one of my 
poems,' Wordsworth wrote to Lady Beaumont, 'which 
does not aim to direct the attention to some moral senti- 
ment, or to some general principle, or law of thought, or 
of our intellectual constitution.' 2 

I have emphasised this 'aloneness' of Wordsworth 
with the universe, because I think it marks his position in 
the history of 'poetry and beliefs', and because it seems 
to determine the quality of much of his work. Centuries 
of intellectual development had now brought matters to 
this, that if poetry were still to be made, it must be made 

1 Prelude, xiii. 375. 

2 In Words-worth's Lit. Crit., p. si- 



WORDSWORTH AND THE LOCKE TRADITION 305 

by the sheer unaided power of the individual poet. And 
what was it that he must make? A record of successes; 
of successful imaginative dealings with the world of eye 
and ear. And what was to be the criterion of success? 
That plastic power shall have been exerted upon the 
'vulgar forms of every day', but in such a way that there 
shall be no departure from 'nature's living images'. The 
midnight storm may grow darker in presence of the 
poet's eye, the visionary dreariness, the consecration, may 
be spread over sea or land, but the transforming power 
must work 'subservient strictly to external things'; there 
must be intensification without distortion. Fact and 
value were to be combined in this 'fine balance of truth 
in observing, with the imaginative faculty in modifying, 
the object observed'. But what sort of 'truth' may be 
claimed for the creation which world and mind 'with 
blended might accomplish ' ? — for, that poetry is ' the most 
philosophic of all writing', that 'its object is truth', is 
Wordsworth's profound conviction. 1 I suppose the 
answer would be, 'psychological' truth; that is to say, 
the poetry is faithfully expressive of certain states of 
consciousness. Of the two elements of which these states 
are composed, fact and value, Wordsworth is equally 
sure of both. He is sure of the fact, because he knows 
no man has observed it more intently; he is sure of the 
value, because this was intuitively apprehended in him- 
self, it came from within. He is no less sure of the truth 
of the resulting creation, because it had been experienced 
as a modification of his own consciousness. But it was 
only as long as his mind was dealing thus nakedly with 
observed fact that Wordsworth could feel this conviction 
of truthfulness. Any translation of his experience into 
myth, personification or fable, though not necessarily 
always culpable, is inevitably a lapse towards a lower level 

1 Lyrical Ballads, Pref.. p. 25 in (Vordsivort/i's Lit. Crit. 



306 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

of truth, a fall, in fact, from imagination to fancy. Poetry 
exists to transform, to make this much-loved earth more 
lovely; and in former times men could express their 
sense of fact, without misgiving, in mythologies. But 
since the coming of the enlightened age this was becom- 
ing almost impossible. The efforts of eighteenth century 
poets to vitalise the dead matter of the Cartesian universe 
by using the symbols of an outworn mythology had ended 
in fiasco, and the abandonment of the symbols, at any 
rate for a time, became a necessity. 

But this abandonment threw upon Wordsworth, as it 
throws still more emphatically upon the contemporary 
poet, an enormous burden, no less, in fact, than 'the 
weight of all this unintelligible world'. He must be 
continually giving proofs of strength in order to main- 
tain his belief that the load could be lightened. To keep 
the vast encompassing world from becoming 'cold and 
inanimate' by transferring to it a 'human and intellectual 
life' from the poet's own spirit; to 'dissolve, diffuse, and 
dissipate in order to re-create'; to 'idealize, and to unify', 
to 'shoot one's being through earth, air and sea' — what 
a stupendous task for the unaided spirit of man! Is it 
to be wondered at that Wordsworth, after bearing the 
heavy and the weary weight, Atlas-like, for many years, 
should at last, like Atlas, have turned into a mountain of 
stone? Youth, and Coleridge, and Dorothy, and the 
moonlight of Alfoxden — these could and did lighten the 
burden for him for a while. But there are many signs 
that after this his material began to resist him more and 
more stubbornly. Was there not something in the very 
nature of the poetic task he had set himself which made 
this inevitable? 'To spread the tone, the atmosphere, 
and with it the depth and height of the ideal world around 
forms, incidents and situations, of which, for the common 
view, custom had bedimmed all the lustre, had dried up 



WORDSWORTH AND THE LOCKE TRADITION 307 

the sparkle and the dew-drops' 1 — this is probably the 
special prerogative of youth. In youth the imagination 
poured the modifying colours prodigally over all things, 
and only when its vitality began to sink did the man dis- 
cover how much virtue had been going out of him. With 
the realisation that 'objects as objects, are essentially 
fixed and dead', comes the disturbing sense that 'in our 
life alone does nature live'. That Wordsworth had 
reached this point at about the age of thirty-five is fairly 
clear from the passage in Book xn. of the Prelude, where, 
echoing Coleridge, he declares 

'That from thyself it comes, that thou must give, 
Else never canst receive.' 2 

The whole context from which these words are taken 
shows also how habitually, by this time, Wordsworth had 
come to find in memory his chief reservoir of strength. 
Certain memories are the 'hiding-places of man's power*; 
memories, that is, of former successful exertions of imagin- 
ative strength. In the Prelude pre-eminently, though 
elsewhere as well, Wordsworth, now fighting a losing 
battle with das Gemeine, supported his strength for a 
while by drawing upon the past. But he was living upon 
capital, and when that was spent, what was to remain ? 



Poetry, as we have since learnt, has other tasks than 
that of imparting psychological values to the visible 
world. Had Wordsworth turned his attention towards 
these, his genius might not have atrophied so soon. It 
remains to indicate briefly, in conclusion, what gave 

1 Coleridge, Biog. Lit., ch. v. vol. i. p. 59. The other quoted phrases on this 
and the former page are also Coleridge's. 
- xii. 276. 



308 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 

Wordsworth his initial direction towards 'Nature' as the 
inevitable raw material for his creative sensibility. Here 
we meet, I think, with two other groups of beliefs current 
in his age, which may be said to have conditioned his 
poetic experience: postulates ('doctrines-felt-as-facts') 
without which his poetry would not have been what it 
actually is. The first was the product of the deistic tradi- 
tion of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, to which 
I have already alluded in passing. Ever since the Renais- 
sance the Creation had been steadily gaining in prestige 
as the 'art of God', the universal divine Scripture which 
'lies expans'd unto the eyes of all'. 1 The emotion of the 
'numinous', formerly associated with super-nature, had 
become attached to Nature itself; and by the end of the 
eighteenth century the divinity, the sacredness of nature 
was, to those affected by this tradition, almost a first 
datum of consciousness. Wordsworth, then, did not 
have to construct this belief wholly out of his experience; 
much of it was given to him. 

Much the same is true of the second of these funda- 
mental beliefs, the belief in the grandeur and dignity of 
man, and the holiness of the heart's affections. This, too, 
was the product of forces originating (for our purposes) in 
the Renaissance; it had arisen out of the ruins of the 
theological view of man. As the 'Fall' receded further 
and further into the region of fable, man was increasingly 
regarded as a creature not only made in, but retaining, 
God's image; and Wordsworth could acknowledge, 
without misgiving, 'a grandeur in the beatings of the 
heart', and speak in good faith of 'man and his noble 
nature'. In Wordsworth's lifetime this humanism had 
taken a colouring from Rousseau, and the special nobility 
of man was therefore only to be looked for 'in huts where 
poor men lie'. The 'higher' grades of society, in which 

1 Sir T. Browne, Re/. Med., i. sect. xvi. 



WORDSWORTH AND THE LOCKE TRADITION 309 

the culture of the Renaissance had been exclusively 
fostered, were now 

'A light, a cruel, and vain world, cut off 
From the natural inlets of just sentiment, 
From lowly sympathy, and chastening truth.' 1 

The blend of these two closely-related beliefs resulted, 
with Wordsworth, in his typical celebration of figures 
like the Leech-Gatherer, Michael, or 'Nature's Lady': 
beings whose humanity is ennobled by close association 
with 'mute insensate things'. Wordsworth is indebted 
to the traditions I have mentioned for his preconception 
that humanity is in closest touch with 'reality', as well 
as in its healthiest, most wisely tranquil, state when it is 
most intimately blended with the cosmic processes. 

Many and great changes have taken place since Words- 
worth's time, changes which have involved the evapora- 
tion of most of his characteristic beliefs, both inherited and 
self-wrought. Few now have any faith in 'nature', or in 
'man', or in the bond between man and nature. Most 
readers seem to find it harder to yield 'imaginative assent' 
to these doctrines than to others more remote from our 
present habits of mind. The poetic tradition founded by 
Wordsworth is probably now dead and superseded. Yet 
as he is the first, so he remains the type, of the 'modern' 
poets who, 'left alone' with a vaster material than his, 
must bear as best they can, unaided by any universally- 
held mythology, the 'weight of all this unintelligible 
world'. 

1 Prelude, ix. 349. 



INDEX 



Addison, sense of safety in, 213; 

and the Bible, 228; and 

Locke, 265, 294. 
Albertus Magnus, 53. 
Ambrose, St, 53. 
Aquinas, St Thomas, 8, 13-14, 

16-18, 21, 39, 66. 
Archimedes, 68. 
Ariosto, 220, 221. 
Aristotle, 13, 16, 21, 25, 50, 

176, 185, 220, 245, 265. 
Arnold, Matthew, 13, 64; on 

John Smith, 138, 170. 
Augustine, St, 61, 65. 

Babbitt, Rousseau and Roman- 
ticism, 33 n. 
Bacon, 6, 8, 24-40, 4 8 "54> 59> 

69»7 I >75,9°.97» ll h I 37^ 
173, 174 m, 182, 185, 200; 

and poetry, 29, 205, 207- 

210, 236, 248. 

Barth, 215. 

Basil, St, 53. 

Baxter, Richard, 73, 74, 122. 

Benda, Julien, 9. 

Berkeley, 287. 

Blake, William, on Bacon, 10, 
55 n., 241. 

Boccaccio, 221. 

Boileau (Despreaux), on Des- 
cartes and poetry, 89; on 
Christian poetic machinery, 
233-4, 236, 252. 

Boyle, 8, 170, 272, 279. 

Browne, Sir T., 7, 8, 23, 41-56, 
310 



57-9, 67-9, 71, 88; and 
Hobbes, 96-7, 117; and 
More, 168; and Glanvill, 
170-2, 178, 182, 185, 189, 
191; and Milton, 237-8; 
and Locke, 268-9. 

Bruno, Giordano, 129. 

Bunyan, John, 74. 

Burnet, on Whichcote, 135. 

Burtt, Professor E. A., 11. 

Butler, Joseph, 75. 

Cambridge Platonists, 72-3, 
86, 1 19-21, 133-69; and 
Locke, 280-1. 

Cardan, 53. 

Charles I, 254. 

Chesterfield, Lord, 270. 

Chrysostom, 32. 

Claudius Aelianus, 53. 

Clement of Alexandria, 64, 
120. 

Cobban, A., on Locke, 265. 

Coleridge, 150, 158, 159, 160, 
163, 201 n., 218; on per- 
sonification, 231-2; Fancy 
and Imagination, 301; assists 
Wordsworth, 304, 306; 
phrases quoted, 306-7. 

Conti, 209. 

Copernicus, 6, 179. 

Cowley, 215; on Scriptural 
poetry, 229-32. 

Cromwell, 1 22. 

Ctesias, 53. 

Cudworth, 28, 136, 154-60. 



Dante, 64, 66, 220, 232, 297; 

and Wordsworth, 298. 
Darwin, Erasmus, 297. 
Dawson, Christopher, 9, 38. 
Democritus, 7, 183, 184, 186. 
De Quincey, 43. 
Descartes, 8, 49, 57, 76-92, 97, 

100, 1 01, 123, 140, 151, 
154, 162-5, 167, 173, 176, 
178, 179, 187, 192, 195, 
265; compared with Locke 
by Voltaire, 271; and Locke, 
277; and Augustan poets, 
299. 

Digby, Sir Kenelm, 85, 175, 
176, 192, 197. 

'Dissociation of Sensibility' 
(T. S. Eliot), 87. 

Donne, 5, 45, 85, 88, 89, 160. 

Dry den, 87, 89; on Imagina- 
tion and Fancy, 218-19; on 
the Heroic Poem, 220-2, 
234-6,252; and Locke, 292. 

Dualism, the Cartesian, 83 ff., 

101, 167, 175, 269. 

Eliot, T. S., 42, 44, 45, 87. 
Epicurus, 1, 5, 7, 183, 184, 

186. 
Essay on Man, 88, 236, 290, 

294; and Paradise Lost, 296; 

and Wordsworth, 299. 

Fall of Man, Bacon on, 31, 35- 
36; attitude of Cambridge 
Platonists to, 136-7; Milton 
and the, 238, 240 ff.; Locke's 
view of, 283 ff.; becomes a 
fable, 308. 

Fancy, see Imagination. 

Farra, Alessandro, 209. 

Farrar, History of Scriptural 



INDEX 311 

Interpretation, 61 n., 62 n., 

63, 64. 
Fontenelle, 1, 186-7. 
Fox, George, 73, 74, 135. 

Galileo, 6, 16-22, 26, 71, 77, 

97, 179, 186, 262. 
Geulincx, Arnold, 85. 
Gibbon, 221, 286. 
Gilbert, 26. 
Glanvill, John, translator of 

Fontenelle, 187 n. 
Glanvill, Joseph, 7, 8, 84-5, 

168, 170-204, 213; and 

Locke, 269-70, 279. 

Hartley, 163, 294. 

Harvey, 26. 

Herbert of Cherbury, Lord, 73, 
121-32, 203. 

Herodotus, 53. 

Hesiod, 209. 

Hobbes, 8, 59, 74, 93-1 18, 1 19, 
120, 154, 155, 158, 162-3, 
176-7, 185, 194 n.; on Wit, 
Fancy and Judgment, 216- 
218, 221; and Locke, 266, 
268, 281, 289, 292. 

Homer, 209, 220, 264. 

Hooker, 32 n., 67, 121. 

Hugo of St Victor, 66. 

Hulme, T. E., 2, 9. 

Hume, 118 189, 221, 286. 

Huygenius, 272. 

Imagination, allegorising an 
obstacle to satisfactory theory 
of, 65; 'gross dew upon the 
pure glass of our understand- 
ings' (John Smith), 141, 228; 
whatever is imagined is phan- 
tasmal, 143-4; the 'stage' 



312 THE SEVENTEENTH 

for prophetic visions, 147; 
inferiority to Reason, 148; 
attitude of the Cambridge 
Platonists towards phantasms, 
151; Cudworth on 'reality' 
of fancy, 156; why no theory 
of poetic imagination from 
Cudworth or More, 158-q; 
whatever is extended is the 
object of, 166; gets no 
quarter from Glanvill, 179- 
182; telepathic power of, 
illustrated by story of Scholar 
Gypsy, 189-90; of witches, 
199; Wordsworth's distinc- 
tion between 'Imaginative' 
and ' Imaginary ', 212 ; 
Hobbes on Fancy, 216-18; 
Dryden on, contrasted with 
Wordsworth and Coleridge, 
218; Locke and the, 291-3; 
Addison on the Pleasures of 
the, 294; insufficiency of 
Locke's theory, 295; Words- 
worth and Coleridge on 
Fancy and, 301 ff.; Cole- 
ridge's 'truth in observing 
and imaginative faculty in 
modifying,' 305. 

Jeans, Sir James, 109, 1 10. 
Johnson, Dr., no, 221, 225; 

on Lycidas^ 234, and Gray's 

Odes, 297. 
Judgment, Hobbes on, 216-17; 

Dryden on, 218; Locke on, 

292. 

Keats, 'negative capability', 37; 
'whisper results', 38; on 
abstract reasoning, 82, 29311.; 
his use of mythology, 297. 



CENTURY BACKGROUND 

Kepler, 179. 

Ker, W. P., on the Heroic 
Poem, 221. 

Lawrence, D. H., 29 n., 38, 52. 

Lecky, 195. 

Leibnitz, 299. 

Locke, 88, 131, 167, 228, 

229, 264-95; an d poetry, 88, 

286-7, 2 9° £» 2 99- 
Lucretius, 1. 
Luther, 65, 67. 

Maimonides, 149. 

Maritain, 8-9, 38. 

Marlowe, Faustus, 31. 

Maundeville, 41. 

Mechanical explanations, felt as 
'true', 7, 72; acceptance of, 
by Hobbes, 97 ff. ; rejected 
by Cudworth, 155 ff., and 
by More, 162 ff.; Glanvill's 
use of, 174 ff.; his exposure 
of, but reliance on, 178-9; 
render phenomena intellectu- 
ally visible, 186-7; Sir K. 
Digby's, 192-3; of 'fascina- 
tion', 198; produce 'a uni- 
verse of death' according to 
Wordsworth, 299. 

Memory, Glanvill on the me- 
chanism of, 176 ff.; Hobbes 
on, as 'storehouse', 216-17; 
and Locke, 292. 

Mencius, 93. 

'Metaphysicals', 'unified sensi- 
bility' of, 42 ff., 87; Des- 
cartes and the reaction against 
the tradition of the, 89; 
qualities of, in Glanvill, 171- 
172; no 'metaphysical flicker' 
in Locke, 268. 



Milton, 8; Nativity Ode, 32, 
239; attitude to Scripture, 
69-72, 100, 228, 237-40; 
Hobbes and, as 'mortalists', 
105, 241 ; and the Platonists, 
135, 145, 160, 161, 241 ff.; 
on spirits, 199, 201 ; 219-63; 
and the Heroic Poem, 219 ff.; 
choice of subject, 224 ff. ; and 
the Fall of Man, 240 ff.; his 
'humanism', 241-6; and 
'freedom', 253-5; and the 
Tree of Knowledge, 256 ff.; 
and Locke, 264, 266-8, 270, 
272-3, 279, 281; and Pope, 
296-7. 

Montaigne, 33, 34, 183. 

More, Henry, 86, 136, 139-40, 
154, 155, 160-9, I7°» I 75~ 
176, 179, 181, 190, 199, 
201. 

More, Sir T., 33, 35. 

Muny, J. Middleton, 248. 

Musaeus, 209. 



167, 
279» 



Needham, Dr J., 23, 29 

41 n. 
Newton, 11-12, 21, 41 

264, 266, 271, 272 

280, 299. 
Nicholas of Lyra, 66. 

Occam, 27, 98 n. 
Occasionalism, 75. 
Ogden, C. K., 27. 
Origen, 64, 120, 200. 
Orpheus, 208-9. 
Otto, Rudolf, 215. 



Paradise Lost, 5 7 , 7 o- 1 , 2 1 9 ff. ; 
compared with the Essay on 



INDEX 313 

Man, 296; and Wordsworth, 
299. 

Pascal, 64, 241. 

Peacock, T. L., 209. 

Pelagius, 33. 

Petrarch, 33, 221. 

Philo Judaeus, 61-3, 151 n., 
237. 

Pico della Mirandola, 209. 

Plato, 64-5, 84, 88, 133-6, 146, 
151, 154, 176, 209, 218. 

Pliny, 53. 

Plotinus, 147, 161. 

Plutarch, 154, 270.. 

Poetry, falling back upon, 13; 
Bacon and, 29, 205, 207-10, 
236, 248; written by Bishops 
and Deans, 42; allegorising, 
an obstacle to satisfactory 
theory of, 65; and Scripture 
as a danger to science, 69; 
and the Cartesian spirit, 
86 ff., 164; John Smith's 
'Reason' not available in de- 
fence of, 141; prophetic and 
poetic inspiration, 147 ff.; 
implied depreciation of, by 
Platonists, 151; Plutarch on 
disappearance of, 154; no 
real succour for, from Platon- 
ists, 158, 159; Science and, 
in the seventeenth century, 
205 ff.; Royal Society de- 
clares war upon, 21 0; 
Hobbes 's psychology of, 216, 
and Dry den's, 87, 218; 
an embellishment, 87, 219; 
Heroic, 220 ff.; like Popery, 
an affront to common sense, 
229 ; Cowley on ' Christian ', 
229, and Boileau, 233, and 



3 14 THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BACKGROUND 



Dryden, 234 ff.; must not 
combine with religion, 234; 
Locke's estimate of, 88, 287, 
290 ff.; 'touch of cold philo- 
sophy' upon, 293 ff., 296 ff.; 
Wordsworth's, and the scien- 
tific tradition, 297 ff.; be- 
liefs made out of, 298; 
becomes a record of successes, 
304-5; its object is 'truth', 
305; has other tasks than 
Wordsworth's, 307. 

Pope, Alexander, and Milton, 
296^7 ; and Wordsworth, 
299. 

Primary and Secondary (quali- 
ties of 'matter'), 77-8, 102, 
289. 

Pythagoras, 179. 

Quetzalcoatl, 64. 

Rape of the Lock, 236. 

Religion, Bacon wishes to keep 
science pure from, 29; ceases 
to be scientifically humble, 
39; Browne pleads for, in 
an age dominated by science, 
41, 59; 'not impossibilities 
enough in', 67; Descartes's 
ontological proof, 82; Des- 
cartes's influence tells against, 
86 ff.; Hobbes's attitude to, 
in ff. ; Platonists try to 
combine 'philosophy' with, 
H9ff.; Lord Herbert of 
Cherbury on its funda- 
mentals, 122 ff.; a 'common 
notion', 1256°.; Platonists 
endeavour to restate, 133 ff.; 
Whichcote's 'Give me r. 
that doth attain real effects', 



137; religious knowledge as 
'experience', 140; natural 
and revealed, 145 ff.; witch- 
craft as 'evidence' of, 169; 
philosophy the best friend of, 
193; rational and sub-rational 
194 ff., 201; Glanvill on 
Reason and, 170, 204; Sprat 
dismisses beliefs of poetry and, 
213; Sprat's 'science' cannot 
conflict with, 214; could not 
be dismissed as 'fiction', 234; 
must be kept separate from 
poetry, 234; Locke on, con- 
trasted with Browne, 269; 
Locke as harmoniser of 
science and, 279 ff.; Locke 
on revealed, 281 ff.; Locke 
on insufficiency of natural, 
286. 

Reynolds, Henry, Mythomystes, 
209-11. 

Richard of St Victor, 66. 

Richards, I. A., 13 n., 22-3, 27, 

93> 9 8 - 
Rousseau, Jean-Baptiste, 89. 

Rousseau, J. -J., 241. 

Royal Society, 170-2, 195, 197, 

203; Sprat's History of the, 

206-7, 210-16, 226. 

Sainte-Beuve, on Montaigne, 

34- 
Satan, Nature associated with, 

3°"3> 35» 50-i; Browne on 
his deceits, 54-8 ; his palmiest 
time, 168; reality of, 194 ff.; 
Milton's, 225, 236, 251-2, 
256-60. 
Satire, and the Cartesian spirit, 

9»- 



Saurat, D., 227, 237, 239. 

Scotus, Duns, 27. 

Scripture, Bacon on, 28-9; 
Interpretation of, 5 7-7 5 ; 
Browne on, 57-8, 67-9; its 
meaning for the seventeenth 
century, 59-60; allegorical 
method of interpreting, 61-6; 
Erasmus, Luther and Hooker 
on, 67; Milton on, 69-72; 
Cambridge Platonists on, 72- 

73. I 37> H6-7; George 
Fox on, 73; Hobbcs as critic 
of, 74, 1 16-18; position of, 
at end of seventeenth century, 
74-5; John Smith's remark 
on, 89, 146; as authority for 
witchcraft, 203; its validity 
proved by Reason, 204; as 
source for poetry, 227 fF. ; 
nature of Milton's belief in, 
237-40; Locke on, 281 ff. 

Shaftesbury, Earl of, 75, 271 n. 

Shelley, on Milton, 25211.; his 
use of mythology, 297. 

Sidney, Sir Philip, 219. 

Smith, John, 72, 89, 135-6, 
138-54, 238, 27c; and 
Locke, 280-1. 

Space, as an attribute of God, 
55, 167, 280. 

Spenser, 221. 

Sprat, 171, 206-8, 210-16; on 
prose style, 211 -12; on 
poetry, 215-16, 230, 272. 

Spingarn, 209 n. 

Stephen, Leslie, 189 n. 

Stillingfleet, 281. 

Swift, 116, 228; and Locke, 
290. 



INDEX 315 

Tasso, 220. 
Taylor, Jeremy, 1 22. 
Tertullian, 58, 63-5. 
Thomson, on Boyle and Locke, 

264-5; his Deism, 299. 
Tillotson, 171, 229. 
Tillyard, E. M. W., 224, 225, 

227, 238, 239, 245, 261 n. 
Toland, 228, 280, 287. 
Tully, 147. 

Vergil, 220, 264. 
Voltaire, on Locke, 271, 277, 
286. 

Whichcote, 73, 7511., 134-8; 
and Locke, 281, 285. 

Whitehead, Professor A. N., 1 1 , 
36, 170. 

Wise passiveness, 37. 

Wit, Sprat on, 215; Hobbes on, 
217; Locke on, 292. 

Witchcraft, Browne's belief in, 
54-6; Henry More and, 
168-9; Glanvill on, 194- 
203. 

Wordsworth, 34; and Bacon, 
37-8; and Browne, 52; his 
view of childhood contrasted 
with Descartes's, 91; 141; 
and Cudworth, 159, 160; his 
Preface compared with Sprat's 
History of the R.S., 21 2, 2 16; 
218; and Milton, 225, 300; 
and Locke, 288, 294, 296 fF.; 
and Dante, 298; on Fancy 
and Imagination, 301. 

Wren, Sir Christopher, 268. 

Zohar, the, 150, 237. 
Zoroaster, 209. 



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